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Rebuilding communities after the tsunami

The Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004 was one of the worst natural disasters of recent years.

One of the most affected areas was the town of Banda Aceh in the Aceh region on the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

It was close to the epicentre of the underwater earthquake which caused the tidal surge. It is estimated that 167,000 people in Aceh lost their lives and nearly 500,000 were displaced.

The scale of operations to restore normal life to the millions of people affected was huge. In the wake of the tsunami, non-governmental organisations were inundated with funds and donations from across the globe. They were charged with providing immediate disaster relief through the provision of food, clean water and emergency shelter. They have also helped rebuild homes and infrastructure.

Laying down the foundations

Many had never had to deal with a reconstruction operation on this scale and there were inevitable delays as the teams grappled with construction programmes and contractors.

Consultant WSP was brought in by the Canadian Red Cross (CRC) to manage its housebuilding programme in Aceh. This involved building 3,480 permanent houses and reconstructing 21 villages.

“We were following things in Indonesia and aware of the problems moving forward,” says WSP imc managing director Gavin English. “The CRC was working on a programme to build houses but couldn’t progress as quickly as it liked so it advertised to bring in professional consultants.”

When WSP arrived in March 2006 it made a controversial decision. The house rebuilding programme was already underway and was progressing slowly.

“We stopped construction. We wanted to ensure that the houses were built to a certain quality and standard.”

Gavin England, WSP

But the consultant found a confusion of objectives and programmes and substandard construction methods, so it ordered all building to stop while it assessed the situation.

“When we first started, what was being constructed was poor quality,” says English. “We stopped construction. We wanted to ensure that the houses were built to a certain quality and standard. We talked to the design consultants and contractors and said that the houses need to be built to these standards otherwise they won’t be approved and won’t be paid for.

“Part of the reason we stopped construction is they weren’t getting the cover to the reinforcement [a fundamental part of earthquake design]. It has to be built to specification.”

“Contractors weren’t following the specifications so we put quality control measures in place,” adds Nigel Penfold, director of WSP’s management consultancy arm Imc. “All construction materials, fixings and fixtures were quality assured and quality controlled. If you look at Banda Aceh, you can identify the CRC houses. The feedback from the communities was that they had to wait longer but that it was worth the wait.”

Tsunami homeless

Thousands were homeless after the tsunami

As well as ensuring durability of the houses, this helped address the government’s policy of “build back better”, aimed at restoring housing stock to a higher quality than before. However, this was no easy matter in remote communities.

The team had to decide between training up local people, predominantly fishermen and farmers, and importing foreign labour to undertake construction work. In the end it was decided to involve local people where possible but the bulk of what was to be carried out had to be done by experienced building companies from the region, supervised by local consulting engineers and often employing foreign labour.

“The concept was not just to build, but to build back better,” says English. “We were trying to build back better in an area where there is little construction technology. It was difficult to get good quality and get the community involved, bearing in mind the pressures of time. They were living in tents and temporary accommodation.”

A community spirit

Alongside the government’s new policy, aid agencies were stressing the need to “build communities, not just houses”. Even though the communities did not build the houses themselves, they were at the heart of decision making - choosing what houses should go where. Each family was given options - to rebuild their house where the old one was or to move to a new community on new land provided by the government. Some people also had to be reallocated land because their properties remained underwater.

“The reallocation was driven by the government and community,” says Penfold. “If a community said they wanted to get together, land was found by the government.The government also put in a community hall and mosque and tried to add in bits to make it a community.”

“The reallocation was driven by the government and community. If a community said they wanted to get together, land was found by the government.”

Nigel Penfold, WSP

Families could then choose from one of four types of houses, designed by local consultants which took account of local customs such as having the bathroom and the kitchen on the external rear veranda. The houses are all engineered to withstand earthquakes with a reinforced concrete structure and block infill walls sitting on pad foundations.

Tsunami victims feedback

Victims were pleased with their new homes

“The initial designs of the houses were done by local consultants,” says Penfold. “It was based around a living area of 40m2 and then tweaked to provide four different types the villagers could choose from, all engineered to withstand earthquakes. They could also choose the colour and a lot wanted yellow − the colour of hope.”

After three years around 11,000 people in 21 villages had been rehoused, in durable housing that would withstand further earthquake tremors.

“Everyone had lost someone, everyone had been affected” says English. “It was very satisfying to hand over the houses.”

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