Few disasters can compare to the devastation caused by the tsunami that struck the north coast of Sumatra on December 26, 2004. After a 9.1 magnitude earthquake in the Indian Ocean, immense waves — some thirty meters high 1 — swept through the Indonesian province of Aceh, leaving at least 163,000 people dead or missing, including 60,000 in the capital, Banda Aceh. 2 It was the largest sudden loss of urban life in a generation — in fact, one of the largest in modern history. 3 More than 60 percent of Banda Aceh’s buildings were destroyed; entire coastal communities were swept away. In many villages, the vast majority of residents were killed, survivors left homeless, and children orphaned. Aid agencies estimated that 90,000 housing units would need to be replaced. 4 Along the coast, some 70 square kilometers were left barren. Throughout this ruined terrain of mud, salt, and erosion, verifiable evidence of land tenure disappeared, as legal documents were lost and the tsunami’s power obliterated even “natural [boundary] markers like trees and footpaths.” 5
When does post-disaster planning give way to the everyday challenge of managing a city?
Almost as staggering as the loss of life and livelihood was the challenge of rebuilding Banda Aceh from the ground up. In the months and years that followed, a rush of international aid — a wave of more than 500 groups that some have called the “second tsunami” — transformed the physical, cultural, and political landscape. 6 That wave has since receded, leaving 140,000 new houses, 1,700 schools, nearly 1,000 government buildings, 36 airports and seaports, and 3,700 kilometers of roads, funded by $12 billion in foreign support. 7
Ten years later, the world has turned its attention to other problems, leaving Banda Aceh all but forgotten. One local report states bluntly, “Since 2009, no assistance has been available from donors,” before offering this reassuring conclusion: “Aceh has, to a large extent, returned to normal.” 8 But what can “normal” mean in these circumstances? How does “recovery” begin and when does it end? When does post-disaster planning give way to the everyday challenge of managing a city? We visited Banda Aceh this past summer to study how rehousing initiatives have fared. 9 How well did planners anticipate the problems of reconstruction?
The New Normal
Banda Aceh is a low-rise metropolis with a quarter million residents living along the delta of the Aceh River. The spare skyline has changed in ways that were unimaginable a decade ago. The domes and minarets of the mosques are interspersed with multi-story hotels — built to accommodate aid workers and visiting donors but now used by tourists — and eight “escape buildings” that loom over the coastal landscape. A novel architectural type, the escape building is essentially a form of man-made high ground — a series of landings connected by a reinforced-concrete ramp designed for vertical evacuation of about 15 meters. In less desperate times, the buildings serve as community centers. One escape building in Banda Aceh is home to the Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Center, and another to the imposing Tsunami Museum. Housing memories of disaster, the museum simultaneously provides the means to escape a future one.
Other changes to the skyline are more surreal, like the 2,600-ton, iron-hulled barge that crashed two kilometers inland during the tsunami. Previously used as an offshore electricity generator, it now affords an expansive view of the city center from an observation deck 20 meters high. Equally famous, the “Boat on the Roof” is a fishing vessel that came to rest in a residential neighborhood of Gampong Lampulo, where it provided refuge for 56 people fleeing the rising waters. 10 Banda Aceh officials have capitalized on the ambiguous attractions of disaster tourism — marketing a narrative that is sometimes uplifting, often macabre, and always jarring. One tourist map matter-of-factly presents “Mass burial ground” next to the icon for “Play Ground.” [PDF]
In Banda Aceh and the surrounding communities, we found conflicting signs of a recovery that is remarkably widespread and sustained, but also partial and contested. While the international organizations that funded much of the recovery tend to focus on measurable outputs suited to their financial investment and the limited timeframe of their commitment, residents on the ground have taken a broader view. They understand that true “recovery” is impossible, but that does not deter them from moving ahead with the day-to-day tasks of rebuilding lives and communities. If recovery has succeeded in Banda Aceh, it is largely because political leaders and residents have defined the process broadly, on their own terms. Rather than focusing solely on reconstructing the physical city, or recharging the economy, or attending to the emotional needs of traumatized survivors, they have viewed recovery through multiple lenses. Housing recovery cannot be defined with simple metrics like the number of new units constructed. 11
Housing can be, and should be, connected to issues of livelihood, environment, security, and governance.
In our research, we view housing in the context of urban resilience. Housing is not merely a means of shelter but also a means of engaging an improved quality of life. 12 A robust housing recovery requires a long-term commitment beyond the initial provision of free dwellings to surviving households. Truly affordable housing affords access to economic livelihoods — either because it is co-located with a workplace, or because it is sited near employment opportunities that match the education and skill levels of inhabitants. It affords a healthy environment by reducing vulnerability to environmental hazards, from floodwaters to toxins. It affords personal and familial security, so essential in a place like Banda Aceh that has suffered not only traumatic disaster but also the political violence of a long separatist conflict. Finally, it affords community empowerment and self-governance. New housing can bring together residents to negotiate community standards, norms, and expectations, and can create new forms of neighborhood association and village management.
The post-disaster building spree in Banda Aceh provides an opportunity to study how housing can be, and should be, connected to these issues of livelihood, environment, security, and governance. Taking a comprehensive view of housing and its role in society, we sought to assess the effectiveness of the reconstruction, and to more fully understand how housing plays a key role in disaster recovery and urban resilience. Briefly, we present three case studies.
Gampong Lambung: Returning Home
When asked for an example of successful redevelopment, Banda Aceh officials inevitably point to Gampong Lambung, considered a “model village” in large part because survivors followed the government’s reconstruction plan. Located near the center of Banda Aceh and less than a kilometer from the coast on a flat deltaic plain, Lambung could not have been more vulnerably situated. Of the village’s 5000 inhabitants and 700 households, only 60 people survived the 10-meter-high waves — many because they were out fishing at the time.
After the tsunami, the Indonesian government tried to prohibit permanent construction of new buildings within two kilometers of low-lying coastal areas.13 That rule, intended to shift rebuilding activities inland, would have required thousands of people, including the Lambung survivors, to abandon their home communities and move away from sources of economic livelihood. 14 This mode of “adaptation” is increasingly common in efforts to cope with climate change but the consequences often fall hardest on those with the least resources. 15 While some Lambung survivors chose to relocate, others refused to abandon their ancestral home. Many returning residents embarked in a cooperative form of land readjustment that entailed a shared sense of community sacrifice and future vision, voluntarily ceding a portion of their land to make way for better roads.
In mid-2005, the government rescinded the building ban and the village was reconstructed on its original site. At its center is a new public space, an escape building donated by the Japanese Government, which doubles as a community center. The ground floor provides a badminton court, while other levels contain a performance stage, a wedding venue and a prayer area. From the roof, anyone can survey the reconstructed village and assess the relative turbulence of the sea.
The new Gampong Lambung is about half its former size, with housing for 300 families provided by various organizations. Indonesia’s Agency for Rehabilitation and Reconstruction (BRR) coordinated recovery efforts but was not empowered to set unified standards, and individual NGOs built houses according to their own preferred designs. 16 Most houses are elevated about a half-meter on concrete slabs, providing limited protection against future floods. Nevertheless, the continued existence of Lambung is an affirmation of community will. Its residents have defended the idea that is possible to avoid disaster by ramping up a building, rather than by ramping up policies to remove coastal populations.
But is repopulating the coastal plain a good idea? Aceh residents got a reality check in April 2012 when a magnitude 8.6 earthquake struck 270 miles offshore. Fortunately, that quake did not cause another tsunami, but as the first real test of Aceh’s emergency response systems, it was a warning sign. In some areas, people ignored emergency sirens that had previously triggered “too many false alarms.” In others, sirens were out of order. Lacking an early warning signal that could be conveyed by cell phone, many people simply started running when they felt the earthquake. Dr. Ella Meilianda, program manager at the Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Center, reported that people ran straight past the escape buildings, apparently preferring a “horizontal evacuation to a vertical one.” Some traumatized residents, she said, were “not responsive at all,” while others ran frantically in every direction. Still others, she said, seemed unfamiliar with evacuation protocols. Some 60 percent of Banda Aceh residents live inland, and they were confused: “why should they run toward the city” to reach an escape building, if that means running toward the sea? 17 An official from the Aceh Disaster Management Agency, Yudhie Satria, described “complete panic” on the streets. “Parents thought they had to go to schools to pick up their kids because they didn’t trust teachers to take over.” Those with their own motorized transportation often “took all of their cars,” resulting in major traffic jams. 18
Planners are developing new emergency procedures, including protocols for shifting major roads to uni-directional evacuation routes. But if people continue to inhabit low-lying coastal areas like Lambung, those systems will be further tested by climate change and rising seas. That has some wondering, wouldn’t it be more sensible to move villagers up into the hills?
Jackie Chan Village: Inland Isolation
An imposing gateway spans the only road into the resettlement community known officially as the Indonesia-China Friendship Village, dedicated in 2007. More commonly it is known as “Jackie Chan Village,” after the Hong Kong movie star who made a donation and paid a brief visit. Located 300 meters above sea level and 1.5 kilometers inland, with expansive views of the ocean, the village elevates residents above the reach of any future wave. The BRR gave free houses to former homeowners displaced by the tsunami, as well as some former renters. A Chinese contractor built 606 houses, mostly single family homes with yellow concrete walls and maroon metal roofs. Residents pay a modest charge for water and a share of electricity for the pump, equivalent to about $2.50 per month. Shared amenities include a kindergarten building, a village clinic, and a large covered concrete slab to accommodate an open market that, unfortunately, has never functioned properly.
They let their land be acquired … [and] didn’t think about how they would then be able to earn a living.
When it opened, the resettlement village rehoused some 2,400 people, an unusually diverse community that included about 100 Chinese households, as well as Acehnese, mixed Acehnese-Javanese, and other ethnicities. Village Chief Wahid (who also oversees six other villages) views Jackie Chan as a “unique place” that brings together people of different faiths to create a “peaceful little community.” Since the BRR selected residents from different areas and backgrounds, no one group dominates the community government. “If only two or three different villages had been represented, they might compete over heads of neighborhoods,” Wahid said. “It is better to have no dominant village. … This is why Jackie Chan Village works.” 19
A survey conducted three years after resettlement found that most residents were satisfied with the houses and valued them almost as highly as their pre-tsunami homes, even though they were smaller. However, the village’s remote location, seventeen kilometers from Banda Aceh, creates employment pressures for the fishermen, becak drivers, traders, service workers, and small-scale entrepreneurs who resettled here. There is “nothing they can earn a living on here based on their skills,” Wahid said. For residents with older children, the absence of a nearby high school creates additional expense. Survey respondents expressed dissatisfaction with the insufficient public transportation, the lack of a village market, and concern about their limited influence on decisions about planning, design, and construction. 20 And the farmers who surrendered land for the village have lost an important source of livelihood. “They let their land be acquired to be redeveloped without a second thought,” Wahid said. “They didn’t think about how they would then be able to earn a living.”
Seven years later, only about 1,200 settlers remain. Some have moved closer to Banda Aceh but are still registered as living in the new village, and local officials seem to tolerate it when they rent out their village homes. We found Jackie Chan Village to be an attractive settlement with flawed logic. It is a notable example of intergovernmental cooperation, and its cohesive, integrated construction is an inspiring alternative to the often hodgepodge recovery efforts in villages served by multiple aid agencies. Its privileged siting offers safety and beauty. Resettlement policies fostered diversity in a region previously wracked by conflict. And yet, its physical isolation creates difficulties for infrastructure provision and poses often insurmountable challenges for residents trying to maintain their livelihoods.
Uplink Banda Aceh: Participatory Reconstruction
Our third example emphasizes the role of housing recovery in promoting community involvement and local governance. Soon after the tsunami, the anti-poverty network Uplink Banda Aceh (UBA) took the strong stance that villagers should be encouraged to rebuild where they previously lived. At a time when most NGOs abided by the government’s “no-build zone,” UBA organized protests against the regulation and provided temporary shelter, food, and cooking supplies in coastal villages, rather than limiting food provision to refugee camps as the government preferred. With international funding, they quickly developed resident-driven reconstruction practices in 23 villages in and around Banda Aceh. They worked directly with community members to plan and rebuild housing and infrastructure, including community centers and mosques. 21 A report by the Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Center quoted one inhabitant of Ulee Lheue village: “We waited a couple of months for help, but because of the policy … no NGOs dared to build here. But then we saw that Uplink was working with 14 villages [within this zone] and joined them so that we could stay and rebuild here.” 22
International donors viewed the tsunami victims as the objects, rather than the subjects, of the aid.
Most international donors, according to the report, “viewed the tsunami victims as the objects, rather than the subjects, of the aid. They thought of the tsunami victims as weak, so most of the aid programs were targeted to short-term needs and physical projects and took a paternalistic attitude, and the format of the aid was not in accordance with local needs.” UBA embodied a very different philosophy, that “outside parties who want to help disaster victims should empower the communities and consider the role of local institutions, so that community rebuilding post-disaster is initiated by the local people themselves.” 23
In March 2005, UBA helped form Jaringan Udeep Beusaree (JUB), a grassroots organization whose name means “the village solidarity network.” Together, they documented pre-tsunami village demographic characteristics, including the residential history and employment experience of survivors, so that they could better target recovery efforts. 24 By that summer, UBA and its partners had salvaged enough wood from the tsunami debris to construct 450 temporary shelters across 23 villages, the first step in a participatory effort to plan and build more than 3,000 permanent homes by February 2007. 25 While global organizations such as the World Bank were still arguing about processes for hiring people to certify land holdings in advance of any actual reconstruction, UBA had already surveyed villages, obtained local buy-in, and started building.
Jakarta architect Marco Kusumawijaya worked with UBA between March and September 2005, and was in Banda Aceh when the government declared that residents should not return to coastal areas. “We defied that,” he said. “We organized people to go back, and did 3,000 houses before the World Bank started.” 26 UBA’s activism helped turn public opinion against the government policy. Faced with the political and logistical problem of relocating 20,000 families in coastal communities, the BRR loosened the policy in mid-2005. 27
As coastal rebuilding began, most architects “wanted a ‘clean slate’ like Lambung,” but Kusumawijaya urged his colleagues to learn from the structure of the original villages. He admired the village road pattern and mosque-centered layout and felt “it would be wrong to erase” it. UBA teams worked with residents to preserve attributes of the coastal villages, but they also advocated for enhancements like better escape roads and access to quality land that could enable a move to higher elevations. They imported laser-guided total station surveying equipment to define plot boundaries supported by community consensus and witness accounts.
One heartbreaking issue was how to support orphans who had land rights but were not yet old enough to head a household. UBA proposed building houses for the orphans, who would remain in the care of community members until they were old enough to occupy their own houses. Kusumawijaya remembered a European NGO worker’s incredulous reaction to this “irresponsible” plan: “How can you let that community take care of a child after that trauma!?” But this was “a non-issue,” Kusumawijaya said, because “in every village, everyone is connected.” He meant that literally. Extended families can comprise sixty or more people, so even villages with hundreds of residents may have only a few dozen families, who are socially interdependent.
Throughout the recovery, UBA teams refused to limit their role to the construction of housing and infrastructure. Physical rebuilding, they contended, was merely the entry point for capacity building, self-determination, and psychological healing. The residents managed construction of their own homes, as UBA sought to rebuild not just housing, but trust. They organized art therapy programs and social events. They also helped restore income-generating opportunities. Much of the farmland was damaged by saltwater, so they taught villagers how to make compost and fertilizer, and they connected farmers with techniques for enhancing agricultural productivity in high-salinity soil. 28
We visited Gampong Meunasah Tuha, the largest of the UBA partner villages, where 280 of 3,000 residents survived the tsunami. A decade later, the village houses some 500 farmers and fishermen; about 50 of the 250 houses are unoccupied, waiting for their orphan-owners to come of age. Many of the houses are UBA designs, nearly all single-story and in reasonably good condition. When the village chief returned from his prayers at the mosque funded by USAID, we asked about his experience with UBA. Were the community’s wishes respected? He reported that his fellow residents are “generally very happy — just getting a donated house is more than they could expect.” 29
As part of a menu of five different earthquake-resistant house designs, UBA offered villagers the possibility of two-story homes raised above the ground. This design offered greater protection from floodwaters or minor tsunamis, while yielding a covered, protected space on the ground floor that could be used to store fishing and farming equipment or support a small business. Some villagers enthusiastically embraced this option, while others resisted it. Residents in the villages of Lamteungoh and Lamtutui said they preferred the one-story houses because the two-story design used wood for the wall and staircase, which they feared would impose high maintenance costs. Moreover, they had been told that construction of two-story houses could not begin immediately for technical reasons, which raised concerns that if they waited they might not get a house at all. 30 Kusumawijaya said other villagers objected to the two-story design because it did not comport with “their idea of modernity.” Apparently, rebuilding the psychic space of the home trumped rational concerns of minimizing future disaster.
Banda Aceh’s Anxious Resilience
As these examples show, housing is not simply about putting a roof over someone’s head. Recovery is an ongoing process that extends beyond the bounds envisioned by planners who arrive immediately after a disaster. At some point the aid agencies go home, leaving communities to fend for themselves. Residents are better able to meet that challenge when post-disaster housing meets the four criteria we have identified: when it supports economic livelihood, reduces environmental risks, enhances personal security, and improves the means for self-governance, even in fractured communities.
Perhaps not surprisingly, others who have studied post-tsunami reconstruction in and around Banda Aceh have found that houses built with community participation are generally in better condition than houses built by outside developers. 31 Participatory approaches, dominant in the villages where UBA operated but also present elsewhere, conceive housing in the broadest sense, as a way to leverage the other necessary aspects of recovery.
Ten years after the tsunami, Banda Aceh is still feeling the cultural aftershocks. In August 2005, the Indonesian government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement reached a peace accord in Helsinki, Finland, that ended years of political conflict that had yielded violence and uncertainty. The government understood that for recovery to take hold, residents had to feel personally secure. As TDMRC’s Teuku “Alvis” Alvisyahrin observed, “From a political standpoint, [they couldn’t] proceed with the redevelopment otherwise.” 32
Residents have responded to disaster by actively defining and redefining their own recovery.
And yet, instability has increased in other areas. Meilianda noted, “We escaped from a very long-term conflict, very isolated from the outside world. Then, because of the tsunami, everybody [came] in.” The massive, if temporary, influx of global aid and attention brought fundamental transformations in cultural practices. “We heard strange stories that we never heard before,” she said. “Strange values, submerged under the radar, now appeared.” Even as Banda Aceh residents have begun to accept the globalizing effect of contact with foreigners, the provincial government resists. Recently, Aceh adopted an Indonesian-inflected version of Sharia. Cultural norms and expectations are shifting in Acehnese society, and it is an uneasy time. There is both greater openness and greater policing of behavior.
Ten years on, the village residents and city officials we met struck a uniformly pragmatic tone. They recounted staggering losses with sobering calm. But the tsunami and the recovery have also provoked a sustained reflection about gains and losses among those who now contemplate the region’s future. Dr. Khairul Munadi, head of TDMRC, went so far as to suggest profound ambivalence about the tsunami’s impact: “On one side, it’s a disaster. On the other side, [it’s] a blessing.” 33 That it is possible to see the tsunami as a blessing is a mark of just how troubled Banda Aceh was before catastrophe struck. But it also says something about how residents have responded to disaster by actively defining and redefining their own recovery. The process of rehousing Banda Aceh is but one vector of that recovery — a window into the ongoing struggle for urban resilience.
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