On December 26, 2004, an earthquake struck 150 km off the coast of Aceh. It was the most powerful the world has seen in a generation. Forty-five minutes later the tsunami wave hit Aceh and within minutes it swept clean an 800 km coastal strip of Aceh -- equivalent to the coastline from San Francisco to San Diego. Some 130,000 people were killed and 37,000 remain missing.
The March 28 earthquake added to the toll in Nias, Simeulue and southern parts of Aceh. The power of nature in these events is scarcely comprehensible. To give just one illustration: the December earthquake caused the 2000 sq km island of Simeulue, with its 78,000 inhabitants, to sink about one meter, while the March earthquake caused it to rise two meters -- more, in some parts. Being able to walk through exposed coral reefs is a stark reminder of the surreal transformations nature can bring.
These events caused immense social, economic and environmental devastation to areas that were already poor, while sparking unprecedented emergency support. Before the tsunami, more than a third of the population of Aceh and Nias lived in poverty. Now, almost half live below the poverty line or are dependent on food aid. Full recovery will take years. The calamity also unleashed an unprecedented national and international response for emergency needs. The Indonesian military and military forces from various countries led the search and rescue, relief distribution and immediate clean-up activities. The United Nations launched a US$ 800 million flash appeal for the tsunami affected countries. NGOs and donors made record contributions.
The effort has now shifted gear from coping with the emergency to helping the people of Aceh and Nias piece back their lives. Visitors are still struck by the scenes of utter devastation, but they now see clear evidence of recovery activity as disaster survivors, along with the staff of 124 international NGOs, 430 local NGOs, dozens of donor and United Nations agencies, various government agencies, some military, and many others are collectively working on reconstruction efforts.
Many new and innovative mechanisms for funding the recovery have ensured that sufficient resources are available. Fifteen donors have come together to pool their grant assistance in a US$ 525 million Multi-Donor Fund for Aceh and Nias, cochaired by the European Commission (the largest donor), the World Bank and the BRR. The Asian Development Bank launched the Earthquake and Tsunami Emergency Support Project with its own US$ 300 million grant. And major bilateral programs of grants and soft loans have been offered by the Australia-Indonesia Partnership for Reconstruction and Development, the Governments of Japan and Germany, and USAID as well as many other generous governments from around the globe. International NGOs and organizations such as the Red Cross/Red Crescent, CARE, CARDI, Catholic Relief Services, MercyCorps, Oxfam, Save the Children, and World Vision have raised record funds to support ongoing relief and recovery efforts. These funds provide hope that it is indeed possible to "build Aceh and Nias back better."
The greatest hope for a lasting recovery has come from the signing of a peace accord in Helsinki between the Government of Indonesia (GoI) and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) on August 15, 2005, ending a 30-year-conflict during which almost 15,000 people had died. Past accords have not held, but lessons have been learned and so far the prospects look good. Former GAM combatants are smoothly reintegrating into their original communities, arms are being handed over on schedule, Indonesian military forces in Aceh are scaling back as promised and local institutions are welcoming GAM leaders into decision-making positions. There is the possibility of a "virtuous circle"; the tsunami gave the chance for peace, and the reconstruction effort presents an opportunity to strengthen that peace by bringing entire communities together to plan for their future.
PROGRESS ONE YEAR ON
Emergency relief is still needed, but the burden of effort is now focused on reconstruction, and progress is being made on multiple fronts. In Aceh and Nias, great areas of urban landscape remain nothing but rubble; about 67,500 people are still living in tents, many of which are going moldy. Hundreds of thousands of people still depend on food aid and emergency employment schemes. However, unlike in similar disasters elsewhere, there has been no major outbreak of disease or hunger, due to the well-coordinated emergency effort. Now, almost 1,000 reconstruction projects are underway, many of which have recorded progress (table 1).
Recovery programs are targeting many needs, with a heavy emphasis on housing, health and restoring agrarian livelihoods. By early December, 16,200 houses had been built and 13,200 were under construction for those made homeless, 15,000 families are housed in temporary barracks, and the UN and Red Cross/Red Crescent are now leading a temporary house campaign which is intended to get everyone out of tents by early 2006.
Most children are now back in school, health centers have largely reopened, some two-thirds of farmers are back farming their damaged land, and three-quarters of the fishing boats lost have been replaced or are being built. Some progress, but more limited, has been made in restoring livelihoods.
Those displaced or who lost their livelihoods are understandably frustrated that a year later the recovery hasn't been faster. The pace of reconstruction following a disaster of such magnitude is never fast enough, given the lives that have been disrupted, but it is proceeding at least as rapidly as in other contemporary disasters (box 1).
The recovery effort is beset by challenges of enormous complexity. No amount of planning or ingenuity could have averted them. To quote a few:
- Land has to be cleared of millions of tons of debris and silt before it can be used again -- whether for farming or building homes; and before building houses it is vital to establish who owns what land.
- Large areas of land are no longer suitable for housing because they are now flood plains due to tectonic plate shifts that depressed much of the coastal shelf by up to 1.5 meters.
- Water, sewerage, electricity, public transport and other service connections must be planned before houses are built to ensure communities become viable again.
- The single road reaching along the west coast was washed away in many areas, as were many ports. In spite of the temporary road built by the Indonesian army, which can only carry 5-ton trucks even when it is dry, it is proving a logistical nightmare to bring in the thousands of tons of building supplies needed for reconstruction.
- The islands, especially Nias and Simeulue.
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