WORLD OF SCIENCE
Why recovery is taking so long
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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)
WORLD OF SCIENCE
Natural Sciences Sector