FEATURE: Five years after tsunami, Indonesia better prepared for catastrophes

19 August 2009

The devastating tsunami which hit Indonesia so hard in December 2004 had two positive effects: it pushed the population to reflect and improve its mechanisms for managing catastrophes, and in the country’s Aceh province it led to the end of a conflict which had lasted 70 years.

Caused by a submarine earthquake off the coast of Aceh in western Indonesia, the tsunami sent waves reaching as high as 30 metres surging over all the lands within its reach including as far as Africa. Nearly 230,000 people in 11 countries were killed.

“Generally speaking, we have learned that tsunami presented us with a chance to improve ourselves not only in Aceh but also at the national level,” said Titi Moektijasih, responsible for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (OCHA) coordination and liaison with the Government agency managing catastrophes. She spoke to the UN News Centre in connection with World Humanitarian Day, which is being observed today.

“After the tsunami, [Indonesia’s] Parliament and civil society worked together to put in place a law on disaster management, something that had never happened before. There was draft law but it had never been truly discussed.”

Titi, herself a tsunami victim, explains that even two years ago it was very difficult for her to speak of her experience. “But today speaking about it affords me some ease,” she concedes.

On 26 December 2004, the tsunami, still four metres high and travelling at 20 kilometres an hour, struck the centre of Banda Aceh, moving up two canals that had been dug to drain off waters from a flood in 2002. Titi is the sole survivor of three OCHA staff in the area.

“The tsunami made us think strategically, notably about juridical questions,” she believes, adding that a law on the management of catastrophes was adopted in 2007. “The text covers a very vast field, but it is only beginning to be put into force. On the ground people have begun to rebuild and importantly a better infrastructure has been constructed.”

Titi, who visited Aceh in March 2005, September 2007, and February 2008, says she has noticed important changes in the physical aspects of the territory. She also believes that the atmosphere has changed and that people no longer live in the atmosphere of suspicion that prevailed pre-tsunami, when Government forces fought Acehnese rebels.

“Today you hear of fighting in remote areas, but in my opinion it is very different.”

As for the future, Titi believes that what is missing most from the reconstruction efforts is coordination. Resources are not lacking, neither financial, nor in terms of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved, “but the efforts are scattered.”


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