Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Aceh gets ready for Tsunami Commemorations . . . and swallows a big handful of amnesia pills.

On December 28, 2004, 2 days after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed over 160,000 people in Aceh alone, Paul Reynolds of the BBC News wrote an article entitled The World Helps—But Will it Forget?

Of all the hundreds of articles, documentaries and media reports written since, of all the tens of thousands of pages documenting the emergency response and subsequent “reconstruction,” this little article still stands out as being eerily prescient.

Reynolds points to an earthquake that struck the city of Bam in Iran a year previously in which 30,000 people died; at the time of the tsunami, those survivors were still living in temporary shelters.  He notes that in order for the disaster caused by the tsunami to not be a repeat of the Bam earthquake, three things needed to happen:

First, the immediate relief has to be of the right type and sent to the right places.  Former President Bill Clinton, who has always been keenly interested in Aceh, said  "I think one of the problems is when everybody takes responsibility it's almost like no-one's responsibility." He suggested that because so many countries are affected, [Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Maldives, Bangladesh, Somalia, and Tanzania among others] donors should each take responsibility for helping one or two. In that way duplication, always an issue in disaster relief, could be better avoided.  "It is really important that somebody take the lead in this," he said.
Although Reynolds conceded “that might be a bit complicated in the immediate aftermath,” it should certainly be considered for the second stage of relief.

As we know, that never happened.  Countries, governments and private donors developed their own ideas of what assistance was needed based on the Aceh they wanted to see emerge fro the rubble.  The Multi-Donor Fund, while shepherding much of the global outpouring into one location, did not stem the tide of individual donors and NGOs developing and implementing project after project whose unreal duplication and lack of monitoring did more to confuse both survivors and government officials than it did to set the economy and civil society back on track.

“The second stage,” wrote Reynolds, “ is for medium and long term help. . . The UN's emergency co-coordinator Jan Egeland has said this might be the worst natural disaster ever. That implies the need for unusually large contributions.”

And unusually large they were indeed. The problem was that the majority of these funds went right back to the international NGOs who swooped down to implement projects that they should have been training the Acehnese to implement, and collect funds for.


“The third stage is to see what can be done to avoid disasters or the effects of them. “
Well, ten years later Indonesia is still hoping that the international community and its Southeast Asia partners will bail it out of the necessity of building an adequate warning system.  Some officials, however, are quite proud of the strides Indonesia has made, as noted at the International Conference on Tsunamis in Jakarta this past November.
Indonesia’s Research, Technology and Higher Education Minister M. Nasir stated that “the current tsunami early warning system called InaTEWs, which is being developed by Indonesia, is quite good as it can provide potential tsunami information within five minutes.”

Director of Science from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for Asia Region Hubert J Gijzen said Indonesia’s current tsunami warning system, “has turned out to be the best in the world."

Tell that to the Mentawi islands, off the west coast of Sumatra (sound familiar?), that was decimated in 2010 and left 450 dead. Villagers were not given any advanced warning because two seismic detection buoys out at sea had allegedly been vandalised.

"There was not any siren to warn people," said Ferdinand Salamanang, whose village was hit by the tsunami. "Yes there was a quake and tsunami detection system in our port, but they are broken down. We did not hear any warning this time."

Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for the Natural Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB has pointed out that Indonesia’s early warning infrastructure is insufficient considering its vast coastline. Indonesia has 4,500 kilometers of long coastal lines that are vulnerable to tsunamis, but only 38 sirens are available when, ideally, there should be one thousand sirens.

According to him, of the total 2,500 evacuation shelters needed, the country has only 50 shelters.

Meanwhile, notes the Antara News, “the Aceh provincial government has expressed hope that President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo would attend a commemoration of the 10th year of the 2004 tsunami.”

And will he, like Bill Clinton, stroll through Banda Aceh and be given a whitewashed tour of the rehabilitated businesses, the gleaming ports, the happy citizens (at least those who aren’t being caned by the Sharia police that day), the evidence of goodwill between the global community and the government of Aceh?

Will he heave a sigh of relief and mutter to his aides, “Well, at least that’s taken care of,” and the ignore requests for assistance from the province for the next 10 years?  Will he be shown the immaculate palm oil plantations and be satisfied that a few hundred thousand or so more acres of those cute trees couldn’t hurt the rainforest, and would certainly show the world (and his wealthy supporters) that Indonesia is “back in business?”

Your guess is as good as mine, because as I said before, I’ve been invited and I’m not going.  I’d be caned for not wearing a headscarf and tossed in jail for opening my mouth.

All I ask is that you listen and read with an open mind, and whenever someone mentions “how far Aceh has come,” ask yourself if that person knew anything about the province before all this “help” arrived.

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