After the tsunami: what next for devastated communities?

Down to Earth No 64  March 2005

This edition of Down to Earth focuses on the human and environmental toll of the tragic events of December 26th and raises some key concerns about the future.

As the death toll from the 26th December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunamis climbed higher and higher, the world watched with horror. Aceh, nearest the epicentre of the earthquake that triggered the gigantic destructive waves, suffered the most. Here the death toll was estimated at 250,000 by the end of February. Tens of thousands had been injured and over 400,000 inhabitants were homeless. Whole villages were devastated along with large parts of the main population centres of Banda Aceh and Meulaboh; homes, livelihoods and many, many lives were obliterated by the debris-charged flood. The disaster is one of the largest in human history.

For the Acehnese, the instant tragedy of the quake-tsunami came on top of a long drawn out disaster - years of violent conflict and indiscriminate terror at the hands of Indonesia's military in its attempt to crush the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh Movement). An estimated 10,000 people - most of them civilians - are thought to have died in almost three decades of conflict. While on paper, Aceh became an area of special autonomy in 2002, the disputed territory continued to suffer under military rule. Martial law was imposed in 2003 then downgraded to civil emergency status in 2004.

Aceh was also in deep ecological crisis before the quake-tsunami. Landslides and flooding claimed victims, homes and crops with every rainy season - the protective forests ripped out by illegal logging outfits backed by corrupt politicians and military personnel.

As the international emergency aid response gathered pace, Acehnese civil society remained in deep shock. Many had to face the loss of their families, the loss of all their possessions, total financial ruin, homelessness, ill-health and hunger.

Many Acehnese civil society organisations lost staff, relatives and friends in the disaster. Among those lost were Mohammad Ibrahim, head of the environmental organisation WALHI Aceh, and Acehnese indigenous leader, Pak Keuchik Jailani (see obituary). Local groups nevertheless threw themselves into the emergency relief efforts. They were joined by colleagues from outside Aceh who organised to send assistance, emergency supplies, transport, funds and volunteers in a matter of days after the disaster struck.

These Acehnese and Indonesian society organisations soon began to fear for the future of the disaster-shattered, war-torn Aceh that confronted them. They became concerned that the emergency aid and recovery efforts, while bringing immediate relief to many survivors, could also create their own problems.

There remains a lot of concern about the effectiveness of aid distribution, the high levels of corruption and the lack of participation by tsunami survivors in planning for their own future. There is concern for the protection of human rights and the need to protect land and property rights in the resettlement and reconstruction processes. There are also fears that reconstruction will exert a devastating toll on Aceh's already badly-depleted forests, leading to more fatal flooding and landslides inland. The following reports highlight some of these concerns. They draw on local and international media reports, as well as discussions with civil society groups, international NGOs and journalists, held during DTE's recent visits to Jakarta and Aceh.