A million survivors now have shelter, clothing and food ... but the hardest work is yet to come
Across most of the region the emergency relief effort is at last winding down. In that time, well over a million survivors have been fed, supplied with clean water and given temporary shelter. Prompt action by governments and aid agencies has averted the feared outbreaks of cholera and typhoid. It seems no-one is starving.
Short-term relief work continues only in and near the Indonesian island of Nias, struck by a massive earthquake on March 28.
Elsewhere, the progress so far has been impressive, but it is as nothing to the labours ahead. Across the affected region, almost 4 million people saw their livelihoods swept away on December 26. Massive rebuilding is now needed to restore local economies and allow local people to get back to earning a living, free from dependence on outside assistance.
The scale of the job is staggering: in Sri Lanka 18,000 fishing boats were wrecked; another 4,000 damaged. When the waves washed over the Maldives they destroyed a quarter of the islands' resort hotels. And when the waters receded from Aceh in northern Sumatra, they left 30,000 hectares of rice paddy contaminated - equivalent to a strip of land 1km wide and 300km long.
The damage to basic infrastructure was just as severe. In the affected provinces of India, some 700km of coastal roads need urgent repair. In Sri Lanka, 72 hospitals must be rebuilt. In the Maldives, 104 of the archipelago's 199 inhabited islands need new jetties. Along the north and west coasts of Aceh, home to some 2 million people, almost everything - houses, schools, health clinics, power stations, electricity cables, pumping stations, water pipes, roads and road signs - will have to be replaced.
'The task ahead of us is immense,' said Alwi Shihab, Indonesia's welfare minister and the man charged with leading the reconstruction effort. 'But so is our resolve.'
That resolve will be sternly tested over the next few years. Across the region, the governments of the affected countries and their stricken populations have declared their intention not simply to replace what was there before, but to improve upon it. They want to build stronger societies and more prosperous economies for their children, so that something worthwhile can grow from the tragedy.
'The Indonesian government is determined to rebuild Aceh better than before, focusing not only on bricks and mortar, but also on community life and family livelihoods,' said Dr Alwi. 'It's a golden opportunity,' agreed Mano Tittawella, chairman of Sri Lanka's Taskforce for Rebuilding the Nation (Tafren).
It is brave talk, but the obstacles are enough to daunt even the stoutest hearts.
Firstly, there is the enormous expense of reconstruction. Estimates of the damage inflicted by the tsunami vary, but most come in somewhere between US$10 billion and US$12 billion. That would not be too much for the developed world, but almost all the communities hit were poor. They have little or no capital of their own to fund rebuilding.
'External assistance is the key to achieving recovery,' said Hamdun Hameed, minister of planning and national development for the Maldives. 'The tsunami has set our country back 25 years.'
Thailand, the richest of the affected countries, has announced it does not need international donations to fund reconstruction. But Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and the Maldives will all be heavily reliant on outside help.
According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the sum needed by these four countries for reconstruction across key sectors - including agriculture, power, water, transport, education and health - is US$7.8 billion. So far, the bank has been able to identify only around US$2.5 billion earmarked by donors for projects in specific sectors, leaving a US$5 billion shortfall.
That is the second big problem. In the unprecedented outpouring of generosity after the catastrophe, private citizens, companies and governments around the world pledged donations adding up to nearly US$3 billion - impressive, but not enough.
The figure comes closer to the ADB's reckoning of what is needed, however, when it is bolstered by the money promised by international agencies like the United Nations and the World Bank, and the bilateral assistance promised by individual governments.
No one international body, however, is able to say exactly how much money there is for reconstruction, where it is, or what it is being spent on.
One thing is certain: little of the money pledged has actually been spent. Of US$1.2 billion promised in February by US President George W. Bush, for example, only US$120 million has so far reached the affected countries.
'The reality is there are gaps on the ground,' says Tafren's Mr Tittawella.
That is not surprising. It has taken most of the past three months for governments and international agencies to identify what needs to be done and where. Even then, there are limits to how quickly the money can be spent. Co-ordinating the reconstruction will be crucial. It would do little good replacing the 120 fishing boats lost by the Maldives, for example, if its resorts have not yet been rebuilt and tourists continue to stay away.
With hundreds - perhaps thousands - of donors and agencies involved, 'the scale and complexity of the tsunami recovery effort is unprecedented', said ADB president Haruhiko Kuroda. 'Recovery work must be co-ordinated at the country level, and countries must have full ownership of recovery efforts.'
For the bank and other intergovernmental bodies, as well as individual donor countries, that commitment means handing over their money to the recipient governments to be distributed through national budgets, rather than funding projects directly.
The solution is enthusiastically endorsed by Indonesia's Dr Shihab, who proposes that even private-sector and charity donors give the money they have raised for Aceh - well over US$1 billion - to the government in Jakarta. 'Co-ordination does not happen by bringing donors together for weekly co-ordination meetings. It happens by bringing donor funds into a single budget,' he said.
Given Indonesian officials' past record of mismanagement and corruption, it is not surprising that some NGOs and even a few donor governments are reluctant to entrust Jakarta with such large sums. Former US president George Bush Snr stressed these fears when he addressed a recent tsunami-recovery conference in Manila. 'The international community is concerned about the use of funds,' he told senior officials from the affected countries, via a video message.
Clearly, a mechanism is needed that can both hold donors to their promises and ensure that the money is being spent where and how it is most needed.
The ADB hopes to provide just such a tool with the launch last month of its Tsunami Recovery Tracking Matrix. An ambitious stab at transparency, this scheme lists specific projects across the different sectors in each country, and attempts to detail who has donated how much cash to fund them.
So far, the matrix captures only the donations by supranational agencies and a handful of individual governments, but the ADB's Mr Kuroda plans to extend it to cover all donors, and post the data on the internet.
When up and running, the matrix should shine a powerful spotlight on the tsunami reconstruction process. If Mr Kuroda's idea works, it will show publicly which donors have fulfilled their pledges, and act as a vital check on how the recipient governments are spending the money. 'It will facilitate the transparency we think is very important,' said Douglas Hartwick, head of the tsunami co-ordination team at the US State Department.
Even some of the more sceptical charities are giving the idea cautious approval. If up-to-date information on spending on individual projects is available to anyone with internet access, it could help overcome the third great obstacle to successful reconstruction: the danger that governments and agencies spend donations to further their own political aims, not to benefit the people who need it most.
'They run the risk of not consulting the communities,' said Juliette Prodhan, Bangkok-based regional humanitarian co-ordinator for Oxfam.
This risk is especially acute in eastern Sri Lanka and in Aceh, where armed groups have been waging bitter separatist campaigns for decades. Although mutual suspicions remain high in both regions, happily there are signs that the tsunami may provide the impetus necessary to forge lasting peace agreements.
Rebuilding trust between the central government and local communities is also an essential element of the reconstruction process in Aceh. Since the tsunami struck, Jakarta has held two rounds of talks with the Free Aceh Movement - the first in 30 years - and a third is planned for this month. 'I see strong light at the end of the tunnel,' said Dr Alwi.
The Acehnese remain deeply suspicious of their government, however. Jakarta's policy of relocating homeless tsunami survivors to concentration-camp-like barracks, far from their original homes and workplaces, was especially unpopular. Even so, Dr Humam Hamid, a sociology lecturer from Banda Aceh who lost his sisters on December 26, is determined to remain hopeful.
While the government has far to go to regain Aceh's trust, officials did at least meet locals recently to discuss their reconstruction blueprint.
'The government did try,' he said. 'I'm optimistic this terrible disaster will bring unforeseen opportunities.'