Fracture and rehabilitation in post-tsunami Aceh
It has been over two years since the Boxing Day tsunami struck South and South-East Asia, killing hundreds of thousands. The mammoth rebuilding effort has been underway for sometime but just how effective has it been? Sarah Tracton looks at the difficulties the region is facing and has this report.
The province of Aceh lies at the northern tip of Sumatra, Indonesia. Sitting on the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, an area of frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the province’s capital Banda Aceh was the closest major city to the epicentre of the earthquake that caused the devastating tsunami of December 2004.
The scale of the destruction was immense: 230,000 were killed, 500,000 left homeless, with livelihoods and infrastructure destroyed in its wake.
But Aceh has been dealt dual blows, beleaguered by both extreme natural catastrophe and civil conflict.
Intermittent war has plagued Aceh since 1873, when an armed resistance formed against dominating Dutch rule. Over the last three decades, a bloody separatist conflict emerged as the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) fought the government for independence from Indonesia. 15,000 people were killed, with casualties on both sides.
Paul Zeccola, a researcher at the Australian National University, has worked with humanitarian organisations in Aceh since 2001. To rebuild the stricken province effectively a holistic approach is needed, he says.
“The seeds of conflict were not washed away by the tsunami…The international ‘tsunami only’ response raises serious issues of inequity in Aceh and can actually do more harm than good, by further marginalising existing vulnerable groups,” he says.
Following a peace deal between GAM and Indonesia in April 2005, armed conflicts have since ceased. But this is no guarantee that the wounds of long-term violence in the province will heel, Zeccola says.
“One of the major criticisms of the aid effort was channelling aid through official government structures. If we talk about the most needy, conflict victims’ fall into that category, yet there has been little aid going in that direction,” he says.
One of the major challenges is to distribute aid in a region where collusion and fraud are endemic. The Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi (BRR), Indonesia’s Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency, has been criticised for paying staff high salaries whilst civilians continue living in cramped conditions and in 2006 Transparency International, a global coalition against corruption, ranked Indonesia as one of the most corrupt nations in the world.
But progress is being made says UNICEF spokesperson, Anna Stechert, who is currently in Ache. The GAM ceasefire and accompanying government lift on restrictions to northern Sumatra has allowed aid to be supplied to those in areas previously inaccessible due to conflict.
UNICEF is currently working with the BRR to ensure houses are sanitised and environmentally sound, with civilians included in decision-making projects.
“We give the knowledge to the people here… [But] we need input from the community. They know best what they want and need,” Stechert says.
In the 12 months following the disaster UNICEF opened 21 children’s centres, 227 health centres, 350 earthquake resistant schools, delivered 830,000 textbooks to children and built 13 water treatment plants.
Dale Cleaver, Acting CEO of Red Cross Australia agrees that it is vital to work with the local community in rebuilding the province.
“We’ve been getting people out of dilapidated tents into transitional shelter [but] you’re talking about a large, vast area. In all our projects we’ve been working with local beneficiaries to engage them and involve them in the solutions themselves,” he says.
Slowing the pace of reconstruction is the shortage of building materials – the result of an illegal logging industry – and the fact that proving land ownership is almost impossible in some areas as the tsunami swept away many land title documents.
Although 7000 permanent houses are already completed, the target of 50,000 is still a long way off.
Dale Cleaver says it’s important to ensure the process isn’t rushed at the expense of safety; rebuilding safe, more stable homes is a crucial part of the aid effort he says.
Despite the progress being made in the area, a June 2006 audit by The Australian National Audit Office into Arrangements to Manage and Account for Aid Funds Provided Under the Australia-Indonesia Partnership for Reconstruction and Development (AIPRD) highlighted poor planning, inadequate risk and fraud management, poor contract procurement methods in the region, says Kate Wheen, Co-Director of AID/WATCH, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to monitoring and campaigning on Australian overseas aid and trade policies and programs.
AID/WATCH’s own research, released in February 2006, also indicated an inability to involve civilians in reconstruction.
Wheen says aid organisations now face closer scrutiny by the media and have to be more accountable. For example, Dale Cleaver says Red Cross Australia’s administrative costs are kept well below 10 per cent.
“In response [to media scrutiny], NGO’s and other agencies have taken additional steps to be more open and transparent. This is a good sign for the future,” Wheen says.