Post-tsunami Aceh bounces back

Elizabeth Frankenberg and Duncan Thomas say aid money was well spent

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 December, 2014, 3:13pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 June, 2018, 2:21pm

On a sunny morning on the west coast of Aceh, Indonesia, mothers chat near a calm blue sea as children play nearby. It is almost unbelievable that 10 years ago, on December 26, waves 18 metres high surged through the village and many others, decimating everything in their path and leaving about 170,000 people dead.

After the tsunami, the Indonesian government, donors, non-governmental organisations, and individuals contributed roughly US$7 billion in aid for Aceh and the government established a high-level bureau based in Aceh to coordinate recovery. What did these resources buy? The answer matters for anyone who wonders whether assistance can make a lasting difference.

In the first year, progress in Aceh was slow and frustration was high. But 10 years on, a very different picture has emerged. On many dimensions, life has returned to something that feels normal. It's a recovery in which Aceh, the Indonesian nation and the world should take pride - but it did not come easily or cheaply.

We led an international team of scientists for the Study of the Tsunami Aftermath and Recovery. Beginning five months after the disaster, we searched for 32,320 people first interviewed as part of a 2004 survey in nearly 500 communities along the Indonesian coast. Of the 30,000 survivors, we interviewed 96 per cent in follow-up surveys between 2005 and 2010 to measure the immediate impact of the tsunami and subsequent recovery in badly damaged communities in comparison to those not directly affected.

The tsunami was devastating, tearing apart networks of family, friends and neighbours. In some communities, 80 per cent of the population perished. In the immediate aftermath, survivors focused on finding food, water and shelter. Within four months, nearly two-thirds of those in severely damaged communities had moved away.

It took time to establish property rights and assemble construction materials, but within five years these individuals lived in family-owned homes at the same rates as before the tsunami. They formed new families through marriage. In communities where tsunami mortality was higher, we saw a greater fertility increase in the five years after the tsunami. Recently married couples had their first babies and mothers whose children had been killed gave birth again.

Some women were pregnant when the tsunami struck, and their needs were particularly acute. Two years after the tsunami, children in utero at the time of the tsunami were shorter for their age than Acehnese children born before the tsunami, probably reflecting their mother's stress and reduced resources. But within three years, in terms of height-for-age, most of these children had caught up to or even surpassed their older counterparts. Post-tsunami assistance provided a health advantage that may turn out to be permanent.

Not everyone recovered to the same degree. The loss of one or both parents took a toll on children aged 15 to 17. Five years after the tsunami, these boys left school and entered the workforce at higher rates than boys whose parents survived. Older girls who lost both parents married sooner.

Aceh's experience of disaster was extreme but not unique. The tsunami affected many other countries around the Indian Ocean.

The disaster was horrific, but the hard work and perseverance of families and communities in Aceh - combined with the commitment of the provincial and national governments and the generosity of the international community - have helped Aceh recover to a degree simply unimaginable in the months after the disaster.

Elizabeth Frankenberg and Duncan Thomas, of Duke University, and Bondan Sikoki and Cecep Sumantri, of SurveyMETER Indonesia, lead a team studying the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia