Post-tsunami Asia takes shape

Houses are slowing going up in Banda Aceh, Indonesia

A year after the tsunami wreaked destruction across much of south-east Asia, the Swiss aid effort is focused on reconstruction in the devastated region.

This content was published on December 25, 2005 - 17:52

Progress is slow with hundreds of thousands of survivors still living in temporary shelters, largely because bureaucracy and ethnic divisions are hampering rebuilding efforts.

Assessing the effort so far, the Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, earlier this month pronounced herself very happy with the Swiss achievements. She said the country had handled the crisis very well in comparison with many other nations.

Switzerland is involved in projects across the region, constructing homes and schools, restoring water supplies, and helping survivors deal with trauma and rebuild their lives.

The Swiss got to work almost immediately in Thailand where the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation is reconstructing four fishing villages on the islands of Ko Kho Khao and Koh Phra Thong, 150km north of Phuket.

Most of the villages now have basic infrastructure and homes are going up, and the rebuilding is expected to be completed on schedule ahead of next year's rainy season.

Who owns the land?

But the projects have been dogged by problems of land ownership - one of the biggest obstacles to reconstruction across the region. In many places, all records were destroyed, and projects are still being delayed while aid agencies struggle to get permission to start building.

"It was a bit more difficult than we thought at the beginning because land ownership is a very crucial point in this project," Rolf Grossenbacher, an architect with the Swiss humanitarian Aid Unit, told swissinfo.

Still, the problems in Thailand seem manageable compared with the administrative headaches and minefields – both real and political - confronting aid workers in Sri Lanka.

On the battered east coast, tens of thousands of tsunami survivors are living in temporary shelters, as aid agencies struggle to obtain government approval to start building.

"This is a situation that no one before has experienced, including the authorities," says Bettina Iseli, coordinator for the Catholic charity, Caritas. "For many NGOs it is a learning process and time intensive."

Ethnic conflict

Sri Lanka has already suffered 20 years of ethnic conflict between the governing Buddhist Sinhalese and the mainly Hindu Tamil Tigers, who want an independent state.

"In a place where you have major numbers of people displaced by conflict, you cannot ignore their needs and focus exclusively on the victims of the tsunami," the Swiss ambassador, Bernardino Regazzoni, told swissinfo. "You need to address the two issues at the same time or you are going to create tensions between these groups."

Thousands of kilometres away, in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, more than 200,000 people are still living in tents and barracks. As in Sri Lanka, the government has declared large areas along the coast off limits for housing.


The devastation here is on another scale altogether. Parts of Aceh province - closest to the undersea quake - were completely obliterated by the massive waves, which dragged entire villages into the sea.

In the town of Sigli, the seawater has long since subsided, but the Swiss Red Cross – there to build new schools – can't start work because the land is flooded by monsoon rains. Getting permission to use the land was a bureaucratic nightmare, so they not prepared to try and negotiate a new site. Instead the plan is to find a way of pumping the water away.

More progress has been made in restoring water supplies. In Banda Aceh, the biggest challenge for the Swiss Red Cross has been to renovate the city's water purification plant at Lumbaro. The plant has been restored to working order, and now supplies about 300,000 inhabitants.


Other projects focus on helping people help themselves. Near Calang, which used to be four hours' drive from Banda Aceh and now takes 12 hours to reach, the heads of about half of the 908 families now living in the district are widows, with no source of income.

Here, the protestant charity Swiss Interchurch Aid, has set up a micro-credit scheme. "Widows were particularly hard hit by the disaster and had no social support structure, as they are held in low esteem in Aceh. So we decided to help them," says spokesman Seta Thakur.


Tangible signs of change are all over landscape, but how long it will take to rebuild the region remains a matter of guesswork. Aid workers speak of years.

Most aid agencies, while satisfied with the results so far, remained conscious of the work ahead. "We do our best - it's a big job," says Helvetas's Karl Gerner, who runs house-building projects in Sri Lanka.

He told swissinfo there was a lot of pressure on NGOs to speed up, but he stressed it was important to do the rebuilding properly. "Others quickly built prefab houses, then the rainy season came and the foundations were not high enough.

"Quality takes time, you need drainage, roads and then you can build houses."


Key facts

The tsunami struck on December 26 last year after a seaquake of around 9 on the Richter scale, with an epicentre off the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
It caused the deaths of 226,000 people and injured 125,000 others. There were 112 Swiss victims.
By the end of 2007, the Swiss government will spend SFr35 million on aid and reconstruction for tsunami victims.
Swiss public donations through Swiss Solidarity, the fundraising arm of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, totalled SFr226 million.

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In brief

A year after the tsunami, swissinfo journalists travelled to the region to see how the reconstruction effort is progressing and how the inhabitants are coping.

Their reports and films can be read and watched in our special dossier "Tsunami – one year on" (see related items).

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