From tsunami to transformation

Keude Unga in the Jaya subdistrict of Aceh Jaya district

Keude Unga in the Jaya subdistrict of Aceh Jaya district

A decade after its devastation by tsunami, much of the Indonesian province of Aceh is at least as good as it was – and in some cases conditions are even better, say researchers who have assessed the area’s progress in the aftermath of disaster.

Nearly a quarter of a million people died and many more suffered during the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004. Aceh sustained the heaviest damage and had the most casualties: more than 220,000 people perished, another 500,000 were left homeless, and more than 116,000 houses were destroyed.

Its transformation since owes much to an unprecedented international response that raised billions of dollars for relief and reconstruction.

“Travelling through the areas that 10 years ago were scenes of total devastation, it is now increasingly hard to find signs that the tsunami ever occurred – except that most of the facilities and services are better than they were before,” said Monash University geographer Dr Craig Thorburn.

Dr Thorburn, who was initially an adviser to a major Australian tsunami recovery project, has continued to research the area’s rehabilitation and was invited to join the Aftermath of Aid Project, a collaboration by the Earth Observatory of Singapore, Nanyang Technical University and Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh. With fellow researcher Dr Bryan Rochelle, he recently published a report, The Acehnese Gampong ten years on: A post-post tsunami assessment.

Dr Thorburn said the substantial financial investment was not the only factor at work. In August 2005, a peace treaty ended the long-running armed conflict between Acehnese separatists and the Indonesian military.

“The highly visible and largely successful rehabilitation and reconstruction of the province’s physical infrastructure and facilities has been accompanied by social and political changes hardly imaginable a decade ago,” he said.

There have been some exceptions to the success story. In particular, some people in villages that had to relocate were still struggling to resume productive lives, with many households lacking a reliable income source.

But most people in the study, even those who had lost assets or livelihoods, readily acknowledged that conditions were better than they had been before the tsunami.

“There were the obvious material improvements such as roads and electricity, and the relief of peacetime after years of conflict,” Dr Thorburn said.

“But people also felt more empowered because they had gained skills from their involvement in the recovery programs, and because they had increased confidence that their leaders were able to tackle problems as they arose.”

The Aftermath of Aid project is continuing, and will inform policy recommendations for both Australia and Indonesia, as well as international disaster relief organisations.

The Disaster Response Unit of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta (DFAT) commissioned the report.