The recovery model

Southeast Asia’s biggest natural disaster in modern history provided a nation and a region with a lesson they never expected to learn. Ten years after the Indian Ocean tsunami, how much has changed?

Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata
December 5, 2014
The recovery model
I’m a survivor: Levana Jonathan, now 18 years old

Levana woke up alone. Bleeding and with a snake lurking nearby, the eight-year-old had little comprehension of what had happened just a few hours before.

Earlier that day, Levana Jonathan was about to leave for Sunday school when the earth shook violently. The little girl ran outside her parents’ house in Banda Aceh, a port city perched on the northwestern tip of Sumatra, to see what was happening. Some parts of her family home had already been destroyed. She saw people gathering in a nearby football field. Her parents soon ushered her to their car and they headed off to collect their grandmother. Levana never made it to school that day.

“We were on our way back to our house when we saw people running towards us. They were screaming; saying that the sea water had risen,” remembers Levana, who is now 18 years old.

Her father quickly parked the car on their front lawn. That was when Levana saw the giant tidal wave roaring towards them. Moments later she had been swept up in its deadly embrace.

“The last thing I remember was holding onto the door of a bank building next to our house when I was hit by a table,” Levana said.

After coming to, bloody and disorientated, Levana was found by rescuers and reunited with her parents, who also survived the ordeal. Her grandmother was not so lucky. Her remains were discovered four days later still inside the family car.

Levana was evacuated to Medan in neighbouring North Sumatra province where she underwent 11 surgical procedures to repair her legs and arms that had been torn to the bone. The family has been living there ever since.

The massive undersea earthquake 160km off the coast – the third largest ever recorded at 9.8 on the Richter scale – and its ensuing tsunami left an estimated 167,000 Indonesians dead, a further 37,000 injured and about 500,000 displaced. A catastrophe almost unprecedented in modern times, it did not just change the lives of those affected, such as Levana, it also changed how a nation and a region regard disasters and the areas affected by them.

“It was a real wake-up call. People realised that disasters in the region were a reality,” said Said Faisal, executive director of the Jakarta-based Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre).

Asean officials were in the process of negotiating a regional disaster response system when the 2004 tsunami struck, affecting Indonesia and several other countries on the Indian Ocean rim. The disaster sped up the negotiation process and in July 2005, regional nations signed the Asean Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER). The agreement’s key objective is to encourage Asean nations to jointly respond to humanitarian emergencies through intensified regional cooperation. In 2011, it was agreed that the AHA Centre would be established as the operational body of AADMER.

“It was an important milestone for Asean,” said Faisal. “There was a change in terms of how Asean responds to disasters because it will be conducted more as a regional effort.”

There was also a major shift in the way Indonesia’s government and people see disasters. They suddenly became very familiar with the term ‘Ring of Fire’ – the nickname given to the most active seismic region in the world – and acknowledged that the country they live in is encompassed by it.

Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB), said that after the tsunami struck – which happened two months into the first term of Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono – disaster management became a national development priority. The Indonesian parliament passed a law on disaster management in 2007 that made central and regional governments responsible for their own disaster management programmes, and the government soon established the BNPB to carry out the law’s mandate.

“Disaster management is now formally institutionalised under an agency that answers directly to the president. Previously, it was only an ad hoc desk at the coordinating ministry for welfare,” said Nugroho. “Disaster mitigation has now become an investment… and the state budget for disaster management has increased about 500% within five years.”

However, according to Muhammad Muas, the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI)’s co-chairman for volunteer development, it was a lesson learned too late. Since its establishment in 1945, the PMI has responded to numerous disasters and provided relief to victims all over the country.

“We never learned from the string of disasters that happened previously. The local people had become so accustomed to it that they saw it as a cultural legend that happened once in a while,” said Muas, who is chairing the PMI committee to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the tsunami in Aceh. “They would just relocate temporarily before returning to their homes to rebuild and continue their lives.”

Awareness has undoubtedly been raised since the tsunami, partly by the media’s ramped up reporting of disasters, which has both positive and negative implications, according to Nugroho. The government also changed its approach, prioritising disaster risk reduction over disaster response, particularly in disaster-prone areas.

“We can’t tell people that a certain area can’t be developed just because it has a high risk of being hit by a disaster,” Nugroho said. “But we can be better prepared to reduce the area’s risks by, for example, building quake-proof buildings or putting in place an evacuation drill.”

Indonesia’s work in this area earned the country the title of Global Champion for Disaster Risk Management from the UN in 2012. According to Nugroho, the archipelago’s expertise in the field has made it a key knowledge hub and disaster management consultant.

Nowadays, 428 agencies at district and town levels conduct their own disaster mitigation plans, and in some coastal areas of Aceh, sirens have been installed that alert residents to possible tsunamis. According to Musa, the PMI found that access to clean water is one of the most critical requirements in times of emergency.

“We teach people how to process water into clean water and we conduct other training such as how to evacuate injured people and how to manage emergency blood supplies effectively,” Muas said. 

As an Aceh local himself, Faisal said that compared to a decade ago, “a lot of good things have been done” in the area of disaster management in Indonesia and across Asean. Yet when he recalls those harrowing days, Faisal points out that the devastating waves had repercussions in many aspects of the political sphere. When the tsunami struck, negotiations were taking place between the Indonesian government and the Aceh separatist movement, two sides that had taken part in a bloody conflict that lasted decades. The following year, the 2005 peace agreement was signed in Helsinki.

“I think when the tsunami hit Aceh… the imminent goal for everyone was rebuilding, and it could only take place if peace prevailed. It would be absolutely impossible to have reconstruction and rehabilitation during the conflict,” said Faisal. “I truly understand what peace means in Aceh. It’s so valuable.”

The Free Aceh Movement had been fighting to establish an independent Islamic state since 1976, and the tsunami also brought about another revolution that was intrinsically linked to faith – a revolution in the life of a certain eight-year-old girl.

“I am very grateful that I survived and had this second chance for life,” said Levana. “Now I go to the church and worship God purely of my own will – I used to do that only because my parents told me to.”

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