How tsunami aid worked -- and failed -- in Aceh

A year after the tsunami laid waste to Aceh, tens of thousands of people still live in a vast archipelago of townships made of scrap wood spit back by the sea.

Along the coast of the Indonesian province, little remains of villagers but swampland and ankle-high rubble. In hurriedly built plywood barracks, survivors are jammed together in windowless rooms.

Billions of dollars were pledged to help the survivors of the tsunami, which left at least 216 000 people dead or missing and displaced more than two million more. But many people remain desperately frustrated.

“We know a lot of money is going to Aceh, but where is it? Where are the buildings? Where is the construction?” demanded Zoelfitri, a 32-year-old man who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name.

He lives in a homemade shanty on the fringes of the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, and cares for nearly a dozen relatives who lost parents, children and siblings in the tsunami.

But to see only the destruction is to miss what else has come to Aceh since the disaster: the villages slowly rebuilding with workers’ help; the kilometres of new sewage pipes and hospital emergency rooms.

One year later, Aceh is testament both to the successes and the failures that can come from billions of dollars in aid money.

Aceh suffered most from the killer waves spawned by the massive undersea earthquake last December 26.
Eleven other Indian Ocean rim countries were hit—Sri Lanka, India and Thailand suffered thousands of deaths.

Within hours of the waves striking shore, as the world watched on TV, the international aid community began one of the biggest emergency assistance programmes in history.

Indonesia estimated it needed at least $5-billion and received pledges totalling $6,5-billion.

Nearly $4,5-billion has been collected, according to the United Nations.

Where has the money gone?

  • By the end of the year, the World Food Programme estimates it will have spent more than $125-million in Aceh, including nearly $20-million on helicopters and airplanes that have ferried 40 000 passengers and 1 000 tonnes of cargo and $26-million on 72 000 tons of food aid.
  • Britain’s Oxfam has spent $11,5-million on public health, water and sanitation programmes in Aceh.
  • Save the Children spent more than $1-million buying textbooks and school supplies.
  • Billions, though, remain unspent, now earmarked for the years of work ahead.
  • Save the Children, for instance, still has nearly two-thirds of its $157-million budget for Indonesia, now planned for use through 2009.
  • The tasks remaining are immense: rebuilding the road on the battered western coast; building tens of thousands of homes; and digging pipe networks to bring clean water.

    Aid officials insist reconstruction must be viewed in the long-term, despite pressure to get things done faster.

    “We don’t want the situation where the pressure to spend money makes us do things so quickly,” said John Sparrow, of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

    In the first few days, aid workers were stunned by what they found. Corpses filled the streets of Banda Aceh. Entire villages had disappeared. Hunger and disease threatened to kill still more people. The local government had basically ceased to exist. Officials were dead, hospitals destroyed, power and phone services were gone.

    The result was an invasion of good intentions and almost no oversight. The early days were chaotic as planes and helicopters quickly began ferrying in everything from surgeons to high-calorie food bars.

    Soon, at least 200 aid agencies were working in Aceh. Intense competition quickly built among aid agencies eager to “plant the flag”.

    “The result was a messy relief operation,” according to a recent Red Cross report.

    Aid-coordination meetings were barely controlled chaos. Workers laid claim to villages they’d “discovered”, and made promises that often went unfulfilled. As the meetings became known for their disorganisation, many people began avoiding them, making coordination even more difficult.

    Money was part of the problem.

    In major humanitarian emergencies, the UN is often the biggest financial player, doling out funding to agencies for particular projects. This time the roles were reversed, as aid agencies arrived in the tsunami-hit regions with enormous financial resources.

    $1,4-billion was pledged to the UN for tsunami work but nearly four times that much—$5,5-billion—was pledged to other organisations, the UN says.

    When Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, a former minister famous for remaining untainted by corruption, took over as head of Aceh’s reconstruction agency, he was shocked at the chaos.

    “There are no roads being built, there are no bridges being built, there are no harbours being built,” he said in May.

    He cast aside much the government’s massive reconstruction plan, brought in outside consultants and auditors, asked for community input and pushed problems into the open.

    Problems such as land titles and timber shortages quickly mounted. When Sumatra’s brutal heat gave way to the rainy season, thousands were still leaving in makeshift accommodation.

    “For the survivors who are in the tents, the conditions are unacceptable. There is no other word for it,” Eric Morris, the UN recovery coordinator for Aceh, said recently.

    Villagers living in shacks fashioned from plastic sheeting and scrap wood are told houses are on the way. But for now, they must wait.—Sapa-AP