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Boxing Day tsunami: five years on UK-funded reconstruction best of its kind

Reconstruction work funded by the UK public in the tsunami-devastated province of Aceh in Indonesia was amongst the best of its kind, experts have said on the fifth anniversary of the disaster.

Development construction experts from Arup have found homes, schools and clinics built by Disaster Emergency Committiee (DEC) members or their partners were of better quality and more likely to be earthquake resistant than most others. Survivors in homes built by DEC members were amongst the most satisfied.

The UK public gave £392M to DEC in the aftermath of the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami and 42% of this money was spent in Aceh, mostly on reconstruction. The money paid for the building of 13,700 homes, 55 schools and 68 health centres. Member agencies of DEC also built 6,200 additional homes with funding from other sources and in total they were responsible for 15% of all house reconstruction in the province.

Arup’s report “Lessons from Aceh: Key Considerations in Post-Disaster Reconstruction”, published to mark the five-year anniversary of the disaster, was prepared for DEC and published by Practical Action Publishing. The report is aimed both at humanitarian and construction professionals involved in future post-disaster reconstruction projects.

Report lead author Jo da Silva, who heads Arup’s international development group said: “The scale of the devastation facing the DEC’s members was unprecedented. It wasn’t just buildings that were lost but also the local resources needed to help replace them. Roads, bridges and ports were destroyed and one third of the local people and professionals who could have helped with reconstruction were killed.

“This was an enormous challenge and aid agencies with little experience of construction on this scale faced an extremely steep learning curve. It would be unrealistic to expect they would get everything 100% right first time. They learnt as they went but importantly when something went wrong they didn’t walk away and leave people in the lurch. In the end, they got the important things right.”

The Arup report found that houses rebuilt by DEC members and their partners were more likely to be resistant to earthquakes, which were identified as the greatest future risk. High levels of involvement in reconstruction projects and clear expectations meant that families expressed high levels of satisfaction with the new homes DEC members worked with them to build.

The report says this involvement of local people by DEC member agencies ensured they learnt new skills and felt more in control of the process of putting their lives back together. This meant the member agencies have “left a legacy that is more than just bricks and mortar”.

Key lessons for those involved in future post-disaster reconstruction efforts include making greater use of technical expertise within the construction sector by engaging construction experts as consultants or partnering with the private sector; and delaying rebuilding if necessary to allow enough time for planning. The most significant shortcoming identified was that some houses needed retro-fitting, and a few completely rebuilding, to ensure satisfactory earthquake resistance.

The report notes that most of the early mistakes that were made resulted in part from a desire to move too quickly to deliver permanent homes for people whose lives had been devastated by the tsunami. It emphasises the importance of strategic planning and coordination between all agencies if the opportunity to build back better after disasters is to be fully realised.

Disasters Emergency Committee chief executive Brendan Gormley said: “The scale and nature of this disaster meant it was not only devastating for the people of Aceh but also an incredible challenge for our members. We are very proud of the way the Member Agencies responded and given that 80% of all UK households supported the appeal we think the people of this country can be justly proud as well. We accept that in the rush to help as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, we inevitably learnt some things the hard way.”

Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, head of the Aceh-Nias Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency (BRR) said: “In releasing this study, DEC with Arup have extended their humanitarian work and contributed to an ever-increasing body of knowledge so critical to the success of disaster mitigation and the recovery of communities devastated by natural catastrophes.”

To obtain your copy of ‘Lessons from Aceh: Key Considerations in Post-Disaster Reconstruction’ visit the Disasters Emergency Committee website or contact Vicky Maunder at

Bound copies (ISBN 978-1-85339-700-4) are available from selected booksellers or can be ordered from Practical Action Publishing.


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