Aceh still suffering a decade after the tsunami

A decade after the Boxing Day tsunami wiped out seaside villages across Aceh, the Indonesian province is still suffering major problems.

The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami devastated Aceh’s west coast, killed at least 130,000 people and left around 500,000 people homeless.

Aid and development expert Dr John McCarthy, from The Australian National University (ANU), said the disaster triggered a massive aid program which rebuilt infrastructure, but many people in Aceh continue to suffer from food poverty and lead impoverished lives.

“Aceh still has a long way to go to recover from the conflict and the tsunami disaster,” said Dr McCarthy, from the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy.

“While the aid programs have reconstructed roads and infrastructure, many villagers still face seasonal food shortages and households in many parts of Aceh remain vulnerable.”

The disaster generated a massive aid and reconstruction program, with around 463 non-government organisations and agencies spending around $7.5 billion. This made post-tsunami Aceh one of the largest reconstruction projects in the developing world.

Australian donors and the government gave more than $1 billion.

Dr McCarthy has done extensive research and fieldwork in Aceh, visiting villages and interviewing villagers along the West Coast in the area most devastated by the 2004 disaster.

He said the benefits of much of the aid sent to Aceh were only temporary. Many aid projects did not succeed in rebuilding livelihoods and many projects fell over when aid agencies withdrew from the region.

“Many people talk of three tsunamis to hit Aceh. The first was the wave itself, the second was the flood of money and aid, and the third was when the aid agencies withdrew,” he said.

“In the villages across two subdistricts where we recently carried out surveys, we found that as many as 55 per cent of those interviewed experience a hunger season each year.”

The surveys revealed that insecurity was linked to the lack of cash crops, poor fish catches and the lack of off-farm work opportunities. The post-tsunami aid did not reconstruct these sectors.

Food security is still highly tied to rice production. Rice production is vulnerable to harvest failure, the lack of irrigation, unreliable rainfall, floods, droughts and pest infestations.

“So much money was spent, and it’s a pity outcomes were not more lasting. Rebuilding infrastructure is relatively easy, recreating livelihoods is so much harder,” he said.

“Government and aid agencies needed to learn valuable lessons from the Aceh experience.”

More than 230,000 people were killed across 14 countries when the tsunami hit on December 26 2004, with the Indonesian province of Aceh the worst affected.