Tsunami-Ravaged Communities Focus on Sustainable Recovery

John Roach
for National Geographic News
December 22, 2005
A year since the December 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami, aid groups are
shifting their focus from immediate relief efforts to helping locals
build self-sustaining communities that are better prepared for future

The effort is a delicate balancing act between helping people meet their day-to-day needs and restoring and protecting the ecosystems required to sustain communities for decades to come.

"Considering the massive enormity of what has happened … it really is amazing to see what people have done," said Emile Parry, deputy director of Oxfam America's humanitarian response team in Boston, Massachusetts.

Last year's giant waves washed away entire villages, destroyed agricultural fields, and shattered lives during what some experts say could go down as the deadliest tsunami in history.

Official tallies put the number of dead at more than 215,000 with nearly 50,000 more unaccounted for. Some 1.7 million people were left homeless and upwards of 6 million were in want of food, water, and medical supplies.

The images of destruction beamed to television sets around the world compelled people to send billions of dollars in foreign aid and donate countless hours of volunteer time to bring relief to the affected regions.

Housing Priority

A major stumbling block on the road to recovery is permanent housing. Four-fifths of the people made homeless in the wake of the disaster still lack a permanent home, according to Oxfam International.

The effort to rebuild has been hampered by the sluggish response of governments to allocate land for development. Confusion also reigns over the size of coastal buffer zones where building is not permitted, the relief agency noted in a recent report.

"I haven't heard anyone say they are against sustainable recovery, but it depends on what [local governments] do," said Anita van Breda, who leads the green reconstruction program for the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C.

In addition the movement of large populations from vulnerable coastal regions to inland territory has also raised problems of land ownership.

"More likely than not there are other people living [in inland regions]," Parry said. "That's something that needs to be navigated carefully."

According to the American Red Cross, given the scope of the disaster, the sluggish pace of rebuilding is to be expected.

Indonesia alone lost 141,000 homes, the relief agency reports, and construction will take some time if new homes are to be built in a thoughtful and responsible manner.

"There are no quick fixes to problems like these," Marissa Mahoney, a spokesperson for the Red Cross's tsunami recovery program, wrote in an e-mail.

Van Breda, of the World Wildlife Fund, said her team is working with relief organizations to make sure that timber used to build permanent shelter for tsunami survivors comes from sustainable sources.

According to the environmental organization, Indonesia's Aceh province will need an estimated 30.4 million cubic feet (860,000 cubic meters) of sawn timber for its reconstruction efforts over the next five years.

But with local forests already logged at a rate three times faster than they can regenerate, the environment is unable to handle the increased pressure.

"There's a bit of back and forth with the government over how much [timber] will be allowed to be removed or won't … it's a very dynamic situation," van Breda said.

To help protect the local forests and keep the rebuilding moving forward, the agency has arranged to receive contributions of responsibly sourced timber from U.S. companies.

Restoring Livelihoods

In addition to rebuilding homes, aid agencies are busy helping tsunami survivors rebuild their livelihoods in a way that will create long-term economic stability.

"It is bringing back what was there and expanding the depth of the skills in the community and capacity for capitalizing on the market," Oxfam's Parry said.

For example, the organization offers accounting classes to help merchants can keep better records and potentially grow their businesses, allowing them to train and hire more people in the community.

The World Wildlife Fund is developing plans to introduce modern aquaculture techniques to shrimp farmers in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. The nonprofit hopes this practice will reduce destruction of mangrove forests, which protect coasts from erosion.

On the island of Pulo Aceh in Indonesia, the American Red Cross is working with the community to find new sources of freshwater, since their water wells were contaminated with salt water.

"The Red Cross and other organizations will eventually leave these areas, but our objective is to make sure that the local communities will be able to provide for themselves for years to come," Mahoney said.

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