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Two Years After Tsunami, Region Still Digging Out
The Washington Diplomat / February 2007

By Larry Luxner

Two years after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake struck the west coast of Sumatra, triggering a series of tsunamis that killed more than 230,000 people in a dozen countries, the region is still digging out from the devastation, with varying degrees of success.

Considered one of the deadliest disasters in modern history, the Asian Tsunami has unexpectedly led to peace in one previously troubled province of Indonesia, while exacerbating tensions in another disputed area of Sri Lanka.

Immediately following the Dec. 26, 2004, disaster, the United States appropriated $656 million for tsunami relief and reconstruction, with all assistance channeled through the U.S. Agency for International Development. When added to the funds spent by the Pentagon on emeregency recovery assistance and relief aid, as well as food aid provided by USDA, total U.S. government assistance comes to $841 million.

"From my perspective, we're very pleased with how the effort is going," said Mark Ward, USAID's senior deputy assistant administrator for Asia and the Near East.

"We have dispersed more than a third of the money already. Some people ask why haven't we disbursed more," Ward told the Diplomat last month, following a January conference marking the tsunami's two-year anniversary.

"The reason we haven't is that we're doing some major infrastructure activities in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, and if you want buildings to be earthquake-resistant in the future, you have to do it slow, and according to new building standards that were not in place before."

Some $405.7 million of that $656 million in USAID money is going to Indonesia, which suffered the worst of any country, and about a quarter of that has already been disbursed, said Ward. Other countries receiving funds through the Tsunami Relief and Reconstruction Fund include Sri Lanka ($134.6 million); India ($17.9 million); Maldives ($12.0 million) and Thailand ($5.3 million).

"Remember that Indonesia was hit by an earthquake and then the tsunami, so they had communities damaged not only by water but also huge infrastructure problems," Ward said. "For example, we're building a new coastal highway from Banda Aceh to Meulaboh, but a lot of that coast is gone. This is a very tough road to rebuild. We'll be spending money in these countries for a number of years to come."

So far, USAID has managed to install and equip community health clinics in 13 Indonesian towns and villages. It's also trained more than 150 midwives and 150 social workers; rebuilt 490 homes, awarded more than 18,000 grants and loans to re-establish or start new businesses; trained 7,000 farmers in organic coffee production and marketing; trained 350 Acehnese youth through vocational education programs and deferred $20.1 million in Indonesian debt payments under a bilateral agreement between Washington and Jakarta.

Between December 2005 and June 2006, says USAID, the affected area's population with access to clean water has increased by 20% through repair or reconstruction of more than 1,580 water facilities, 2,015 latrines, 93,000 meters of sewage systems and one new sewage treatment plant.

Ward said USAID has opened a permanent office in Banda Aceh, where it has "hundreds" of staffers working full-time on disaster relief.

"We have this opportunity to work in Aceh which we did not have before," said the USAID official "Long after the tsunami is over, we're always going to be welcomed there. The opportunity to tie that province which was sort of forgotten before the tsunami to economic growth and democracy is very encouraging."

In addition, USAID money has paid for the rebuilding of 79 community centers, 47 villgaes offices and 58 recreational facilities.

"One of the most inspiring moments in meeting the challenges of the tsunami recovery process has been the realization of the deeper meaning within the virtues of brotherhood, the value of unity, and the power of cooperation," said Sudjadnan Paronhadiningrat, Indonesia's ambassador to the United States. "They have formed the nucleus from which we draw our strength to continue to help mankind."

In addition to USAID funds, says Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy, the American people have given more than $1.8 billion in private tsunami donations, including both cash and in-kind donations.

According to Paronhadiningrat, international assistance has enabled Indonesia to rebuild 700 schools, 137 hospitals and medical facilities, 78,000 houses and about 400 kilometers of roads. He said the country needs a total of 1,200 schools, 400 hospitals, 128,000 houses and 1,300 kilometers of roads.

"Realizing the fact that the pace of reconstruction following a disaster of such magnitude is never fast enough, we still have tried to fulfill one of the priorities of 2006 and that is providing decent shelter to all," he said. "We have managed to move all people who still live in tents to temporary housing before they receive their permanent houses."

In the case of Indonesia, the payoff has been political as well as economic.

"Probably the most wonderful thing that happened is the Aceh peace accord signed in 2005," said USAID's Ward. "In fact, not only are they not fighting anymore, on Dec. 11 they had elections, and one of the former insurgent leaders was elected governor."

The ambassador agreed, noting that the peace accord signed Aug. 15, 2005 in Helsinki between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement "has given us great hope for a lasting recovery."

In Sri Lanka, however, USAID is limited because of the fierce fighting between government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels which control parts of northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

"Our program there is continuing," said Ward, noting that USAID allocated $134 million to Sri Lanka, of which about 50% has been disbursed. "There's no question that from time to time, the troubles delay our work, but we're usually able to get back in and get started again. Because of concerns about the insurgency, we chose areas that were damaged by the tsunami that would be less likely to be affected by the fighting."

Bernard Anton B. Goonetilleke, Sri Lanka's ambassador in Washington, said the Asian Tsunami was the worst natural disaster in his country's history. It killed an estimated 40,000 Sri Lankans in second place after Indonesia and destroyed 114,000 houses and 16,000 fishing boats, or 70% of the country's fishing fleet.

"Sri Lanka depends to a great extent on tourism, and the resort-based tourism establishments along our southern and eastern coasts were totally devastated," Goonetilleke said. "Apart from housing, our roads, railways, telecommunications and power lines were destroyed, as well as many schools, hospitals and universities. In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, we had one million displaced people, of which 500,000 have since been resettled. Our estimate is that we will need three to five years to complete the recovery."

In May 2005, delegates representing 50 countries at a donor conference in the Sri Lankan city of Kandy pledged $4 billion towards reconstruction efforts.

"We found that the NGOs which initially came by the hundreds, if not thousands provided a very important service following the tsunami. But they did not have the capacity to undertake reconstruction projects. On top of that, we had bureaucratic problems," Goonetilleke explained.

For example, he said, "a law was passed requiring an area between 100 and 200 meters from the shoreline to remain vacant for sand dunes to be formed and mangroves to re-establish themselves, so that in case of another tsunami, the death toll would not be as high. But we found that it created problems for the people, because land was very scarce for rebuilding, and there was a delay in finding suitable land. So after a considerable delay of about eight months, in October 2005 this restriction was relaxed."

According to Goonetilleke, each Sri Lankan family received an average $2,500 from the government for rebuilding because, he said, "we found that the pace of rebuilding by household owners was faster than those houses that were to be constructed by NGOs."

A much bigger problem, he claimed, is appropriation of USAID and other monies by armed rebels belonging to the Tamil Tigers movement (also known as Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE), which occupies around Sri Lankan territory in the north and east.

"Initially, there were no problems, then subsequently, as the immediate emergency passed, and when the permanent infrastructure was being planned, these NGOs ran into difficulties," Goonetilleke told the Diplomat.

"I'm aware of instances where they have taken 10%," he said. "If a contractor is working on a housing project, he'll be forced to pay. If there's a telecom project or road works, each contractor will be obliged to pay or they won't be allowed to work. There have been instances of contractors' camps being attacked and equipment damaged. The mere visit of an armed car to a contractor's site would send the right kind of message."

The rebels have stolen everything from steel girders to electrical generators to tents and cement, said the ambassador all given by well-meaning donors for the recovery effort. "In the recent past, when the armed forces were able to recapture certain areas that were under LTTE control, we found that certain equipment used by NGOs had been taken by the LTTE to build bunkers," he said.

"From the government's point of view, we have done our best, but if you look at it from the point of view of the people affected, who have not gotten all they had before the tsunami, they will say they're not happy with the progress," he conceded.

Indonesia's ambassador says 2007 will be just as critical as last year for the country's long-term recovery efforts.

"Two critical issues of bottleneck proportion need attention in 2007: housing and validation of beneficiaries and land titling," said Paronhadiningrat. "The long-term economic impacts of the tsunami and reconstruction process and poverty reduction also need to be addressed, since the livelihoods of the people in Aceh and Nias are still vulnerable. Strengthening institutional and human capacities are equally important."

He added: "At the same time, it is also our primary responsibility that all stakeholders will fulfill their commitments for the benefit of those affected, and it is important for us to always maintain the momentum for future endeavors."

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