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A WORLD OF SCIENCE

 

STEPHEN HILL
Why recovery is taking so long


Nine months after a tsunami with the force of 1000 Hiroshima atomic bombs devastated the Indian Ocean, rehabilitation efforts are only just starting to make a visible impact in Aceh, the Indonesian province hardest-hit by the disaster6. Why is recovery taking so long and what lessons have been learned for the next time disaster strikes?

Stephen Hill is Director of UNESCO's Regional Bureau for Science in Jakarta. He has assumed the dual role of Resident Co-ordinator of the United Nations and Co-ordinator of Humanitarian Relief in Aceh on a number of occasions. Here, he describes his experiences and answers the critics.

In recent months, the United Nations has been criticized for its perceived inefficiency in responding to the tsunami tragedy. Is this criticism justified?
Not really. In fact, the United Nations (UN) as a whole has done a good job. In co-operation with the Indonesian government and foreign military forces, immediate humanitarian relief in the form of food and medical support programmes, in particular, was delivered very efficiently, even though some communities were very hard to reach. Remember that the infrastructure along the coast had been annihilated: 400 damaged bridges (120 of which were totally destroyed) and 1900 km of damaged local roads; there were no ports for coastal access; and many of the affected communities were in a previously 'closed' zone of conflict between the rebel Free Aceh Movement (GAM) independence fighters and the Indonesian military7. Conditions were pretty tough. However, though it took some days to reach some remote communities, people did not die from starvation and there were no serious outbreaks of disease.

Where the UN and other agencies are being criticized now is mainly for perceived delays in the subsequent reconstruction, particularly of housing. When you look at the situation on the ground, you can understand why there have been delays.
You have to understand the sheer magnitude of the disaster. The tsunami was not just a big wave; somewhere near one-third of a billion km3 of ocean was displaced by the 26 December earthquake, invading the land at the speed of a jumbo jet with power equivalent to 1,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs.

The impact was not only one of physical destruction. There was also serious trauma among the survivors, virtually all of whom lost close relatives or many members of their wider family. Women were killed at three times the rate of men: the tsunami hit early on a Sunday morning when many women were on the beaches with their children and the men mostly out on the ocean fishing. Nearly 40 000 children died; government officials and university professors, who tended to live in the better suburbs by the ocean, were killed in disproportionate numbers, thus seriously weakening the recovery effort; the media and communications systems were destroyed …. society was torn apart!

Meanwhile, there was an outpouring of world sympathy, generosity and a will to be involved. While the generosity of the private donor community was of enormous importance, the activities of NGOs and volunteers were not always helpful. A total of 164 NGOs arrived in Aceh, some well experienced in emergency relief, like Oxfam, World Vision, Care International and the International Red Cross; these moved quickly into the role of implementing 'arms' of UN programmes, delivering food, tents and so on. Others were literally falling over each other in an unco-ordinated way. The UN, as an international agency, is not constitutionally mandated to co-ordinate NGOs. This is the task of government, which in this case was still reeling from the shock and magnitude of the response needed.

Many volunteers, quite frankly, had no language or relevant skills. They arrived at the flaps of the temporary tent accommodation the UN had to operate from, demanding to be used but basically getting in the way, taking up scarce food and accommodation. Or the skills they brought with them required an infrastructure which did not exist. For example, a team of four highly specialized neurosurgeons arrived but for them to operate required a backup team of other surgical specialists, established hospital facilities, nurses, etc. in a triage environment where people were being saved from death by surgery delivered in field tents. Or the NGO jumped in, doing its own project decided upon before coming, with a local group identified through personal contacts rather than on government advice; it then went about delivering fishing boats or nets designed for different coastal conditions and fishing practices or building houses in zones the government had already declared unsafe for future habitation. The government has now taken action to channel and connect those NGOs, who are permitted to continue operating, but this took several months.

The UN - and the government - therefore moved into the rehabilitation stage of recovery in a context of a seriously traumatized population and considerable confusion from the enormous range of voluntary and funded support flooding in. What was needed was a new government agency based in Aceh with overarching power to co-ordinate and direct response. The Agency for Rehabilitation and Reconstruction (BRR) was duly established in April but it took another couple of months before the agency was assuming full control over co-ordination of recovery operations.

The UN is assisting the government, facilitating recovery efforts towards government-set objectives and helping to bolster the government's own decision-making capacities. BRR is now directing resources towards mainly the physical rebuilding programme, constituting 70% of the $US 1 billion worth of approved projects at the start of August. With the UN assisting, we can expect a fairly solid kick in the curve of reconstruction activity.

Most important however were the secondary impacts of the trauma. Nearly all the records of land ownership were washed away or seriously damaged. In an environment of total destruction with so many previous owners killed, it was very hard to establish who really owned the land, particularly when only their extended kin were left, arriving at the coastal community from a village some distance away in the mountains.

The only way of establishing legitimacy of ownership is to develop community consultations led by the local government official responsible, many of whom had been killed. However, as the head of one UN agency involved in rebuilding housing said to me, 'unless we take the time to generate full agreement and commitment to the decisions on land ownership, there will be serious problems a year or two down the track, with land disputes tearing the community apart again. This is particularly true in cases where survivors have to move from their previous location because the land has been seriously affected by the tsunami, such as through salination, or because their home lies in an area delineated by the government as being unsafe in the face of another possible tsunami.

Are there any gaps in the recovery process?
Most energy is being devoted to rebuilding the physical infrastructure, with a secondary focus on re-establishing livelihoods and jobs. Much less attention is being paid to rebuilding the human culture, communications and social infrastructure needed for people to generate the collective strength to take over the rebuilding enterprise themselves. Just 1% of approved projects at the start of August, for example, were devoted to social affairs: legal support for women and internally displaced people, trauma recovery and so on. There was virtually nothing for recapturing the strength of the culture of the Acehnese. These people have a very strong and individual culture and sense of their identity as an Islamic community, a strength that dates back to the 9th century. But with its heart torn out and many traditional carriers of the society's culture now gone, this potential strength is in danger of erosion. Yet, as UNESCO has found out through a fairly successful project utilizing cultural performance and community in the healing process for traumatized children, this community power is of enormous importance.

Donors also pay most attention to the physical things which demonstrate clear results to their benefactors. We at UNESCO are finding it much harder to generate funding for projects we are currently implementing on the 'softer' things, for example, for rebuilding the media system and communications, for re-building the longer-term capacity of the province's higher education system which lost so many senior academics, for looking after the out-of-school youth who 'drop through the cracks' of the formal system and are as yet unable to get to the newly rebuilt schools, for strengthening and supporting the heart of the society's cultural expression and performance before its remnants end up in the marketplace of immediate economic necessity.

The rush of activity has also tended to sweep past the scientific and technical (S&T) knowledge that is essential for the recovery process to be sustainable. To take an example: having committed funds to activities for which they had technical competence, a number of the large NGOs then moved into areas in which they lacked competence. Planting mangroves along the coast to mitigate against another potential tsunami became a popular movement, even though there is still limited evidence of how to do this. Relatively wealthy agencies therefore moved into mangrove replanting operations. However, without their own technical experts, their mode of operation was to fund local communities to do the job: people without any experience or technical knowledge who were unsupervised by experts. This often resulted in failure, perhaps simply because there had never been mangroves in that particular location and mangroves were extremely unlikely to find it habitable in the future.

Are there any lessons to be learned about how to handle recovery from such a catastrophe next time? You mention inadequate attention to knowledge and scientific support, for example.
The first and probably most important lesson is that, in a complex emergency like the one we confronted in Aceh, aid does not always translate the generous good intentions of kind, caring hearts into precisely what is needed on the ground; and managing the flood of goodwill can be a nightmare. What is essential is connectedness to real knowledge of local needs.
The second lesson is that we need to look at rehabilitation as a coherent physical and human recovery enterprise and to link knowledge about both. Rebuilding media and communications and strengthening the S&T bases on which communities make decisions is not something to be left for later. That is why UNESCO lost no time in rebuilding the Nikoya radio station in Banda Aceh, for example. Culture is not a luxury either.

The third lesson is that science and the scientific capacity of the affected community are not a distant 'luxury' to be thought of later either but an immediate necessity. The Aceh disaster proved that we needed immediate scientific assessments of the damage both in the water and above the water line before the evidence was lost, in order to be better prepared next time. UNESCO conducted a series of such surveys and supported those of government scientists towards overall assessment of environmental damage.

We needed the immediate support of scientists to work with communities and government in making choices about where people should live in a context of salinated or damaged land and potential dangers from the ocean.

We needed scientific training of communities in planting mangroves or developing other biological or physical barriers to mitigate the possible effects of a future tsunami event. UNESCO itself developed a community-based pilot project in Aceh targeting habitats conducive to mangrove propagation, including the provision of direct expert technical support to the planting communities; with attention to these parameters, the planting programme was a success.

With many park rangers and environmentalists having been killed, we needed to train their replacements to conserve established forests and coastlines against the potential encroachment of both illegal and legal economic exploitation. UNESCO has been working with the Ministry of Forestry on these issues and is currently seeking funding for support of government capacity in the Leusser World Heritage park.

We needed to rebuild the scientific base of the main local institutions providing tertiary education, as it was these very institutions which would be called upon to provide technical backing for the recovery programme itself.
Lastly, 'preparedness' for dealing with future disasters requires expert S&T inputs into both educative materials and the actions communities practice in escaping and coping. UNESCO has taken a lead role in developing these materials for disaster preparedness in Indonesia.

UNESCO's experience in confronting the need for disaster response across a broad range of areas has highlighted a fourth lesson. The difficulty of response to such a disaster - as for that matter, the response in the USA to the Hurricane Katrina tragedy in late August - demonstrates the need to tune up disaster preparedness across the whole country and not just where tragedy last struck, building a stronger, well-prepared government and community able to handle natural hazards. S&T knowledge is central to this broader objective. UNESCO is now in a good position to take a lead here in promoting a stronger 'science preparedness'.

For the experts think more may come. Off the coast of Sumatra, the island of Simeulue has risen and the island of Nias has tilted as the Earth continues to adjust and the pattern of major earthquakes moves down the coast from Aceh to the south. The Earth's crust underneath is highly unstable. These are not good signs.


Interview by Susan Schneegans

6. Aceh was martyred by the underwater earthquake off Sumatra and the successive tsunami waves: of the estimated 227 000 dead, 126 000 were Acehnese. A further 93 000 Acehnese are still missing. Half a million Acehnese were displaced by the disaster, which reduced 127 000 homes to rubble

7. The Aceh Peace Agreement was signed by the Indonesian government and the GAM on 15 August in Helsinki (Finland)

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