Good neighborliness in Indonesia

News and Press Release
Originally published
By Amalia Soemantri and Virgil Grandfield, Banda Aceh Operational Centre/Indonesia

After a massive tsunami killed thousands of Indonesians on 26 December 2004, the East Timor Red Cross (CVTL) decided to assist old friends and new neighbors in Indonesia. In April of this year, the CVTL sent a water and sanitation team that represented the first overseas mission for the Red Cross of the world's youngest country.

When CVTL water and sanitation technician Jo? Pinto Suarez was eight years old, the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) brought food to his famine-struck village in East Timor.

"My heart was moved by the work of the PMI," says Suarez. "I promised myself that I would join the Red Cross one day. "I wanted to help people just like the PMI did for me and my family."

Suarez joined the PMI 10 years ago and received specialist water and sanitation and community hygiene training through its East Timor branch. He took that experience with him to the CVTL when it was established under the umbrella of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 2000 - two years before the former Portuguese colony became an official member of the United Nations.

After the earthquake and tsunami of 26 December and a massive aftershock in March devastated parts of Indonesia, Suarez joined the CVTL's first mission beyond East Timor's borders. Suarez got his chance to apply what he learned from the PMI to help his old friends and new neighbors, just as the PMI had once helped his community.

In early April, Suarez, along with CVTL and Australian Red Cross (ARC) colleagues, traveled with members of the PMI to the Indonesian island of Simeulue to do a three-week assessment for future water and sanitation projects and to begin passing water and sanitation expertise on to PMI volunteers and local people. The project is funded by ARC.

"When we arrived in Simeulue Island," says Suarez, "I felt so sad because everything was a mess."

The team found the Simeulue PMI chapter office heavily damaged by earthquakes, including the massive March 28th aftershock whose epicentre was just southeast of the island. "We stayed in a tent outside the building because it was safer, the existing building had been damaged, and tremors were still happening often."

The team traveled to Simeulue on an International Federation flight, but because of earthquake and tsunami damage to roads and bridges, could only reach target villages by circumnavigating the island by boat.

The boat captain had lost his home in the tsunami, which hit the island of Simeulue as hard as any other part of Indonesia but caused fewer than 10 deaths. The low casualty count is attributed to villagers remembering and reacting to warning signs often referred to in a bedtime story about a long-ago tsunami. The damage to the island, however, was extensive.

The joint Red Cross team lived on a boat for 13 days while making physical assessments on the island and meeting with people to discuss their water and sanitation challenges and priority needs.

The team did assessments in 20 villages. Suarez said the water quality in all 20 villages was very poor. "The water in Simeulue was very dirty and not healthy to consume, because the water sources were polluted following the earthquakes."

The team identified six suitable water supply systems for establishing simple, singular gravity systems. (In simple gravity systems, water comes from springs through pipes, with no pumps or treatment. Even where Red Cross projects treat water, users are encouraged to continue the practice of boiling their drinking water.)

The team also identified three existing systems, badly damaged by earthquake and neglect, to be rehabilitated.

Suarez says he wanted to be part of the project to share what East Timor has learned with the people of Indonesia.

"We wanted to show (the volunteers and villagers) how to build simple water supply systems, like we do in East Timor. There, the community contributes from the beginning until finish. By helping build it, people learn how the system works, so it won't be difficult for them to fix the system by themselves when the water supply system is broken."

Suarez is happy with what he was able to help the East Timor Red Cross accomplish in a short time on its first mission abroad. "Personally, I am glad to have helped? says Suarez, "because Indonesia is East Timor's nearest neighbor."