NINE years after the Indian Ocean tsunami, the capital of Indonesia’s Aceh province is now a bustling city, with a museum and a large ship pushed inland by the wave among few reminders of the devastation. Lives have returned to normal for many of the survivors, but others are still struggling with a lack of adequate housing. “I will never forget that day. It was a terrifying experience,” said 29-year-old Nanda Suhada, whose father, brother and grandmother died when the giant wave stuck their neighbourhood in Banda Aceh.
She now works as a guide on an erstwhile floating power plant that has become a tsunami monument and tourist attraction. The 2,600-ton ship was pushed ashore three kilometres by the tsunami. “I can tell visitors what happened in detail during the tsunami because I experienced it myself. I also make a decent living working here,” Suhada said.
The ship is visited by between 500 and 1,000 people daily, including some foreigners, she said. The December 26, 2004 tsunami, triggered by a massive earthquake off Sumatra, killed about 170,000 people in Aceh and wiped clean an 800-km coastline. Today, the provincial capital Banda Aceh is a thriving city, with new buildings including the posh city hall, hotels and shopping centres having emerged from the devastation. The modern four-storey Aceh Tsunami Museum, built in 2009, serves a symbolic reminder of the disaster, its roof resembling a high wave. The response to the disaster has been touted as an example of successful international cooperation. Since the tsunami, more than 130,000 houses, 250 km of roads, 18 new hospitals and other infrastructure have been built, according to the government.
More than 80,000 hectares of agricultural land has been rehabilitated or cleared for use and 15,000 hectares of fish ponds have been created. The disaster also prompted the Indonesian government to take steps to boost disaster preparedness. “Since the tsunami, there has been tremendous increase in our capacity to deal with disasters,” said Sutopo Nugroho, spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency, which was set up after the tsunami disaster. The annual budget for disaster control has increased tenfold since five years ago, from 300 billion rupiah ($24.6 million) to 3 trillion rupiah, and local disaster management agencies have been established in more than 400 districts across the country. An advanced tsunami warning system, built with assistance from the German government, can issue an alert less than five minutes after an earthquake and regular tsunami drills are conducted on Sumatra.
“There are still problems in improving the capacity at the district level because of inadequate local funding,” Nugroho said. But things have improved little for some tsunami survivors. Twenty families still live in temporary barracks in Banda Aceh’s coastal village of Ulee Lheue because they did not get permanent housing. “No one cares for us even though we were victims of the tsunami,” said Burhan, one of the fishermen who live in dilapidated wooden shacks with their families in Ulee Lheue since the village was obliterated by the wave. The government has built a harbour and a ferry service linking Banda Aceh and Sabang island. It also created a small lake where families can have picnics at the weekends or relax at nearby cafes.