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Viewpoint: Tsunami lessons

Arup’s Jo de Silva on how construction professionals have much to offer international disaster relief efforts

I worked on the ground in Sri Lanka and Indonesia immediately after the tsunami disaster and also during the continuing reconstruction effort and most recently worked with the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC). The DEC commissioned a review of the quality and earthquake resilience of housing, schools and health centres rebuilt in the Aceh province of Indonesia.

The UK public donated £392M to the DEC’s agencies − which include the British Red Cross, Christian Aid, Islamic Relief, Oxfam and Save the Children. Of this money, 42% was spent in Aceh, mostly on reconstruction − it paid for building 13,700 homes, 55 schools and 68 health centres.

The scale of the devastation facing the DEC’s members was unprecedented. Not only buildings, but the resources and infrastructure needed to replace them, were lost. Roads, bridges and ports were destroyed and one third of local people were killed.

This was an enormous challenge and aid agencies with little experience of construction on this scale faced an steep learning curve. They learnt as they went. Mistakes were made but when something went wrong, they didn’t walk away. In the end they got the important things right.

“Despite the urgent need for new homes, sufficient time needs to be spent on planning while ensuring that people have good temporary shelter.”

They involved the people they were trying to help in housing projects, teaching them new skills and helping them put their lives back together, rather than do it for them. This left a legacy beyond bricks and mortar. DEC members built back better − making houses better able to withstand earthquakes − a much more likely threat than a future tsunami.

However, there are important lessons to be learned. The most significant shortcoming in the recovery effort was that in the desire to help local people as quickly as possible, some early mistakes were made. Despite the urgent need for new homes, sufficient time needs to be spent on planning while ensuring that people have good temporary shelter.

Engineering and construction professionals have a significant part to play in reconstruction efforts of this kind, and should be involved at the very beginning. We have vital technical expertise and know-how to contribute to the strategic planning of postdisaster reconstruction not just in design and implementation. Yet, these professionals are often not considered as partners or looked to as consultants in post-disaster response.

Humanitarian agencies and construction organisations need to learn to work together to better plan recovery efforts and also to prevent disasters occurring in the first place by sharing our understanding of hazards and safe construction.

This type of relationship goes beyond philanthropic corporate social responsibility − the private sector can add real value to humanitarian efforts by contributing valuable skills and services on a more significant scale. It is not just about charitable giving once a disaster occurs. It is about building relationships with the humanitarian sector and with governments so that we are collectively better able to respond when disaster strikes − and to learn from the past.

  • Jo da Silva is director of Arup’s International Development Group. “Lessons from Aceh: Key considerations in post-disaster reconstruction” can be downloaded from

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