May 27, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Aceh after the tsunami

Published: Jul 22, 2007

Cornelia Lenneberg

When I joined World Vision’s response team in Banda Aceh just 12 days after the tsunami struck I knew the challenge would be huge. The spontaneous surge of support for tsunami relief across Australia and around the world last January was heart-warming. Generosity and compassion knew no bounds. As a program manager for World Vision in the region, I had to turn that generosity into effective assistance for the victims. My role in Aceh was to assist with assessing initial needs and to develop a five-year strategy for both immediate relief and longer term social rehabilitation, economic recovery and infrastructure repairs.

Our first task was to get an accurate and detailed assessment of people’s needs. For all aid workers the pace of community consultation was inevitably slow: people whose lives had been traumatised by the tsunami had to be given time to tell their stories. I needed to sift the facts from those stories, but had to wait until people were ready. I could not talk about regaining livelihoods until they had buried their dead and had time to grieve. Nor could I talk about rebuilding homes when they couldn’t bear to hear the sound of the sea.

Community coordination

The immediate challenge was linking into the local context. For the previous two years access to Aceh had been very restricted. Almost no agencies had local staff or links with local organisations, and very few had even limited contacts within the local administration. These are all essential elements for a rapid emergency response. Fortunately, the United Nations (UN) quickly established daily meetings where we could share information and learn about Indonesian military (TNI) and government requirements. Outside the capital the military organised the coordination meetings. International agencies organised other meetings on specific activities – shelter, water and sanitation, livelihoods and child protection – to avoid duplication and gaps in reaching communities, and to ensure we spoke with one voice to provincial authorities.

At first local authorities and community organisations could give little direction or support – many of their leaders and staff had been killed. Others were grieving and struggling with immediate family needs. Local offices and equipment had also been destroyed. In those early weeks hiring local staff from such a traumatised community was fraught with difficulties, but essential. We needed them to search out communities in need. It was a slow and arduous task – one of our teams even walked half a day in search of a community, only to find they had left to seek support elsewhere. Later we used a helicopter to survey the west coast of Aceh where damage was most severe. We identified many smaller settlements between the main provincial towns, but the military did not permit our helicopters to land without permission. The tsunami destroyed not only coastal roads and ships, it also silted up the ports. It was too hazardous to bring supply boats close to shore even at the large harbour of Meulaboh.

Negotiating with authorities

One of the most contentious issues we faced was the provision of temporary shelter. International standards set out minimum requirements for the basic necessities of shelter, water and sanitation. They also require that international agencies be guided by local authorities in responding to an emergency. However, because of the overwhelming scale of the disaster, the Indonesian government took five months to prepare the ‘blueprint’ for rehabilitation and reconstruction. In the interim, we were unclear about who we should negotiate with – provincial departments, local district leaders, or the military (who were effectively in charge in most areas). We could not undertake most of our planned reconstruction work because decisions had not been made about just where people could rebuild. Ownership of land was often in dispute, and alternative land needed to be provided. The key question of how close to the sea rebuilding could occur had not yet been made. Clearly, longer term temporary shelter would be required for large numbers of people. But this was highly contentious in an area with longstanding conflicts, and concerns about potential military agendas to control population movements.

Just weeks after the tsunami the provincial government decided to establish, with the assistance of a wide range of organisations, more than 30 ‘barracks’ for the temporary accommodation of 1,000 people each, for up to 12 months. The UN and international NGOs were all concerned by the concept of ‘barracks’. They immediately reminded the authorities of their responsibilities to observe international standards for displaced people. These required locating housing close to original settlements, allowing people to decide whether to participate and when to leave, providing special protection for vulnerable groups like women and children, and ensuring the availability of minimum services. World Vision was able to negotiate to build Temporary Living Centres, or ‘TLCs’ (each with 20 rooms, each room designed to hold 100 people), which did conform to international standards. Provincial officials were keen to quickly relocate as many people as possible into better shelters, so it was not difficult to get agreement from them on our improved designs or to incorporate access to basic services. ‘Barracks’ were quietly forgotten. The authorities had already identified land, but we insisted that building only proceed after we had consulted with the local community and obtained its approval. We also emphasised we wanted to ensure that all displaced people had opportunities to make a living, and access to education and health.

Responding to needs

Other policy issues soon emerged. The protection of children and their well-being was vital. We needed to ensure orphaned children were registered and cared for, and that other children had a safe place in which to deal with their psychological trauma. Family access to original or alternative land sites had to be negotiated, and changed building regulations and conflict around land titles dealt with. New policies on the design and location of community infrastructure, and the environmental impacts of rebuilding were required

We were also concerned not to increase tensions within communities. The tsunami did not affect all groups equally. In some west coast communities only 10 to 30 per cent of women survived. This left a predominance of single father-headed households in those areas. The large numbers of single parent families, childless families and orphans placed great strains on the social fabric. Our programs had to consider potentially very significant changes in gender roles that would put pressure on women’s livelihood options. In the emergency response phase, our assessments needed to ensure that women’s views were both heard and heeded in program responses. In addition, we were concerned that our presence in this isolated, conservative Islamic culture did not itself exacerbate conflict.

Partnerships and problems

Our work required innovative partnerships with both local and other international agencies. We worked with them to ensure schools were quickly reopened, and to replace damaged educational resources. We joined with Kompas newspaper to provide mobile libraries, and Meulaboh Hospital, Gadjah Mada University, and the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne to train new staff, provide new psychosocial services for communities and paediatric surveillance facilities for displaced children.

Initially the military were very helpful in assisting relief agencies to reach affected areas. However, after a month, military conflict with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) began to complicate our access. We needed to use our helicopters to search out small settlements of displaced people along the coast and in the inland forests, but this was not allowed by the military. The military began moving displaced people into large camps, so that communities we had consulted about needs were no longer there when we returned. In these large camps, the military became involved in NGO consultations with communities. We were more often denied permission to travel, or approval was delayed. Maintaining the space for humanitarian work became a challenge when the military effectively replaced the civil government in many areas.

There is still much more to be done. The complexities of this unprecedented disaster mean that there is no ‘quick fix’ in the recovery effort. A school, for instance, can easily be built, but it is important that it is built in the location and to specifications that best serve the community’s needs. It is important not only to provide relief, recovery and rehabilitation, but to ensure we do so in full consultation with those directly affected.

Cornelia Lenneberg ( is manager of the Asia Pacific Rim Team at World Vision Australia

Inside Indonesia 84: Oct-Dec 2005

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