Tsunami recovery--five years after: An interview with CWS Indonesia Director Michael Koeniger

The Dec. 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami was one of the largest-scale disasters in modern history, both in terms of its geographic reach (it affected more than a half-dozen countries) and the global response it prompted. Former UN humanitarian coordinator Jan Egeland called the tsunami recovery "an extraordinary effort, probably unique in the history of humankind."

Boys with water
In the Nias Island village of Maoula, Church World Service has helped the community construct a water system in the wake of the 2004 tsunami and 2005 earthquake.
Photo: Paul Jeffrey/ACT-CWS

By Chris Herlinger/CWS

The Dec. 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami was one of the largest-scale disasters in modern history, both in terms of its geographic reach (it affected more than a half-dozen countries) and the global response it prompted. Former UN humanitarian coordinator Jan Egeland called the tsunami recovery "an extraordinary effort, probably unique in the history of humankind."

Church World Service on-the-ground tsunami efforts were based largely in Indonesia's Aceh province, where CWS had worked prior to the tsunami, while providing support for partner recovery work in India and Sri Lanka. CWS also focused on the impoverished Indonesian region of Nias, the site of a March 2005 earthquake.

CWS efforts in Indonesia focused on housing reconstruction and rehabilitation, supplementary feeding, distribution of medicines and CWS Health and Baby Care Kits and other non-food items. CWS also provided access to clean water and sanitation facilities, as well as trauma counseling, psychosocial support and child development programs.

Mchael Koeniger
CWS Indonesia Director Michael Koeniger

The fifth anniversary of the disaster is prompting reflection and evaluation of the effort, including by CWS Indonesia Director Michael Koeniger, who recently responded to questions about both the global and CWS tsunami-response efforts and continuing work in tsunami-affected regions.

CH: Broadly, how do you assess the project five years out and were the goals met for recovery? What would be continued challenges?

MK: Overall the CWS activities have been successful and we have achieved what we set out to do, in some cases even achieving more than planned--more beneficiaries for the livelihood program in Nias, for example. I do think that the goals were met. This has been confirmed by several evaluations of our work.

The continued challenge for CWS is to raise funds to continue our work in Aceh and Nias, as there are many remaining unmet needs. That includes ways to overcome donor fatigue--or "tsunami fatigue”--as there might be a perception that the work is done. It's not.

For the people of Aceh and Nias the 2004 tsunami and 2005 earthquake were human tragedies and disasters of truly horrific proportions, leaving a lasting impression on many survivors and those who came to assist, including CWS staff.

However, over the last five years it has become increasingly clear that the context in which these disasters happened has had a big influence over the longer-term outcome of the humanitarian response, in particular in relation to the transition from relief to development. 

There are striking long-term structural problems in both Aceh and Nias, most importantly conflict and poverty. The 2004 tsunami in Aceh happened against the background of more than 30 years of civil war. At the same time Aceh and Nias were among the poorest regions in Indonesia prior to the earthquake and tsunamis. Many of the worst-affected areas such as Aceh’s West Coast and Nias, were very marginal regions which for decades were very poor and isolated. Nias island in particular continues to struggle with these structural issues as much as with any lingering effects of the 2005 earthquake.

If the objective is indeed to “build back better” much remains to be done in Aceh and Nias--communities without health services, schools without water supply and sanitation facilities, and school drop-outs and malnourished children are still very much a reality. The disasters wiped out the little progress that had been achieved over the years, as well as many people’s life savings.

CH: An expanded focus for CWS is in promoting child health/supplemental feeding programs. How were such programs implanted in the context of the tsunami response?

MK: We monitor the progress of children in our nutrition programs, and once they have reached a good nutritional status they exit from the program and other children join.

CWS provided supplementary feeding for severely and moderately malnourished children and also carried out growth monitoring and monitoring of the nutritional status. In Nias, for example, we set up community feeding centers in 24 villages, using local foods and Kids Against Hunger covering over 500 children. In addition we provided multi-micronutrient sprinkles in collaboration with Heinz/ABC and Helen Keller International and fortified biscuits and noodles in collaboration with the World Food Program. CWS also conducted trainings for local health volunteers and built six village health posts in Aceh and a village maternity clinic in Nias. In total the CWS health and nutrition program has reached over 4,700 children under the age of five in Aceh and Nias.

CH: On the issue of psycho-social/trauma work, how are individuals and children who were assisted doing now? If not specific individuals, the general levels of trauma recovery among groups served? Can we assess the resiliency of those affected?

MK: In general I would say the children who were assisted are doing fine; the general level of recovery has been good. Our psycho-social adviser has told me that children who attended our psychosocial activities--Fun and Educative Activities in Tents, or FEAT--showed fewer symptoms such as fear of separating from parents, fear of wind or thunder. They now have more confidence. Parents whose children attended another program for early childhood age children also report less "clinging behavior," and better health skills.  School teachers also report a marked difference between children who attended the programs and those who did not with regard to their preparedness for school. 

As for adults, those who were involved in support groups and other activities report that they benefited from their involvement. 

CH: On the issue of disaster mitigation and “building back better,” how have the homes constructed stood up during the last few years?

MK: CWS has built over 700 new homes in Aceh and Nias and I’m pleased to say that they have stood up very well. We did not use contractors. Instead we deployed our own field staff and involved the community in the design and construction of houses, using local craftsmen and labor, and local materials as much as possible. This local presence of CWS staff was critical for success.

The design of houses was different in Aceh and Nias, taking local culture and customs into consideration. CWS built a prototype, allowing the community to see the finished house and make additional suggestions or recommendations. Satisfaction with such owner-driven, rather than contractor-built houses, remains high.

CH: How has the learning curve been in terms of the residents themselves now thinking more consciously about where they build their homes, how they build them, creating community warning mechanisms, etc.?  To what degree do age-old living habits and thinking still persist?

MK: The answer is yes and no. Of course the awareness about tsunamis and earthquakes has been heightened--from basically zero to a very high awareness of the dangers of tsunamis and earthquakes. However, the level of consciousness does not always translate into action. For example, [in some areas] many houses were re-built on the foundations of houses swept away by the tsunami. So, the owners are aware that a tsunami could sweep away their houses, but that’s the land they own and relocating obviously was not a preferred alternative. Although certainly donor assistance has helped to make new houses more earthquake-resistant.

There is naturally an increased interest in risk reduction after a major disaster. Many community warning mechanisms, escape routes and escape hills have been created. There have been various efforts to make communities safer and to raise disaster risk reduction awareness, and CWS was among the NGOs implementing these programs. We have moved towards projects with a multi-hazard focus, though, rather than focusing heavily on a single hazard with a long return period, such as a tsunami.

Age-old living habits and thinking very much persist. But this includes traditional knowledge as well.  For example in Nias and other islands, the local wisdom there was to make for the mountains in the event of an earthquake--there had been a tsunami in the early 1900s and this knowledge was passed down the generations. As a result, very few people died in Nias from the tsunami, while there were many more victims as a result of the 2005 earthquake. Interestingly many of those who died in Nias lived in modern, concrete buildings which collapsed in seconds, while the old, wooden houses held up well, as did wooden school buildings dating from the 1970s which continue to be used today.

CH: To what extent has the level of economic development/livelihoods changed or improved in the region?

MK: The answer depends on who we are talking about--the poorest or the relatively better off.  Aceh and Nias started off as some of the poorest areas in Indonesia--despite the rich oil and gas reserves in Aceh, for example. The tsunami and the Nias quake were something of a leveler--many better-off people lost their houses and cars and other assets, so they became definitely worse off, while many of the poorest have indeed been able to build back, better. Thanks to the assistance of, say, CWS, they have a better constructed house, better access to water and sanitation than before, maybe additional household assets or small businesses, such as raising pigs. In general, farmers are farming with better equipment, tools and knowledge; and fishermen have new and better boats.

CH: Have there been any surprises, unanticipated challenges or issues that CWS, and other agencies for that matter, have faced in assisting survivors?

MK: The tsunami response was a steep learning curve for us; none of us had ever dealt with a disaster like this. So yes, there were indeed surprises and unanticipated challenges stemming from the sheer scale of the disaster and the humanitarian response to it, from operational issues such as mobilizing a quick response and sourcing all the necessary materials and supplies for recovery and reconstruction, to coordination issues with the presence of hundreds of NGOs, UN agencies and donors. An important issue that emerged was the need to balance speed and quality--a sometimes difficult trade-off.

CH: What is the condition of the environment, the land, now in terms of sea salt damage to soil, pollutants?

MK: There has been one unanticipated environmental impact that I can’t say I thought of five years ago: The peace process and post-tsunami recovery programs have opened up areas of Aceh that were previously "off limits." It was simply too dangerous to venture outside of towns like Meulaboh as these areas were held by the GAM, or Free Aceh movement, a rebel group, as was most of Aceh outside the cities.

So after the peace agreement people have been going out into the forests and hinterlands and are logging trees, opening up land for palm oil plantations, and starting gold mining. That has happened near the intake of one of our water supply projects, threatening the water supply of several villages. The end of the conflict and the post-tsunami recovery programs have been bad news for the environment!

CH: Has the peace treaty between the government of Indonesia and GAM held or are there concerns of trouble ahead?

MK: While some observers regard the peace in Aceh as a closed book and a happy ending, others see a time bomb. The peace treaty and the peace have held, but there are concerns. The 2005 Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding which ended the conflict in Aceh and the Law on Governing Aceh, or LoGA, passed in mid-2006 by the government in Jakarta differ in a few crucial points. The GAM leaders have valid concerns that the LoGA dilutes or undermines key principles of the Memorandum of Understanding. In 2005 the objective was to hammer out an agreement, even if this meant leaving out important details. Today these details are proving to be sticking points. There also remains deep distrust between GAM and the Indonesia military.

There are various other concerns as well, such as the re-integration of ex-combatants, and a rise in extortion, robbery, piracy and illegal logging involving ex-combatants. Recently the head of the German Red Cross in Aceh was shot, and while he survived, this was one of three similar incidents in a relatively short period. So there is concern about security.

In addition, the tsunami response has created new conflicts between those receiving assistance and those, often just a few miles further inland, which don’t as they were not affected. Similarly, those affected by decades of war have received little compared to those receiving post-tsunami assistance, and these issues are adding to the tensions in Aceh.

Chris Herlinger, a writer and editor with Church World Service, reported on tsunami recovery efforts in India and Indonesia. He is author of the book With Courage, In Hope: Five Years After the Tsunami, a recently-published chronicle of the response to the 2004 tsunami by CWS and other members of the Action by Churches Together International network. The book is published by ACT International, which is based in Geneva.

Media Contact:
Lesley Crosson, 212-870-2676, lcrosson@churchworldservice.org
Jan Dragin, 781-925-1526, jdragin@gis.net


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