Exactly one year on

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The trouble with measuring progress is that there are always two sides to the story – how far you have come, and how far there is still to go.

One year on from the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Indonesian province of Aceh, critics argue the pace of reconstruction has been too slow.

Aid organisations say an enormous amount has been achieved. Both are correct.

The provincial capital, Banda Aceh, has been transformed. Streets that are now clogged with traffic were a year ago six feet deep in mud, twisted metal, lumps of concrete, coconut trees and decomposing bodies.

It took months to clear the debris. But although the centre of Banda Aceh is bustling again, you do not have to go far to find areas of deserted wasteland.

Statistics can never tell the whole story, but a few numbers are worth repeating.

An 800km (500 mile) strip of Aceh’s coastline was ravaged by the tsunami. More than a 130,000 people were killed. Another 37,000 are officially listed as missing. Half a million survivors were left homeless.

Entire communities were wiped off the map. The scale of the destruction was staggering. Rebuilding Aceh was always going to be a mammoth undertaking, and so it is proving.

Frustration

One year on, more than 60,000 survivors are still living in tents. Baharuddin is one of them. He pitched his tent on the foundations of his old house – the house he once shared with his wife and five children. After the tsunami he was the only one left.

Baharuddin has fashioned a vegetable patch out of the dusty earth outside his canvas home. He does not want to be dependent on food hand-outs.

“I’ve heard there’s a plan to build us new houses a little way from here.” he said.

“But I don’t know when. We’ve already waited a year. I just don’t understand what’s holding things up.”

His frustration is understandable. Most humanitarian organisations took a decision early on to try to move survivors directly from “temporary shelter” to new permanent homes. But it has taken longer than expected.

A number of different factors are to blame.

There is a shortage of building materials and skilled labour. The main road down the west coast is still impassable, so heavy supplies and equipment have to be transported by boat.

Over-ambitious

Then there is the question of land. Thousands of documents were destroyed so establishing who owns what is problematic. In some places, land has disappeared under the encroaching sea. Then add to all that the multiple layers of bureaucracy, much of it put in place to safeguard against corruption.

Some organisations now acknowledge that their original plans were too ambitious.

“The international community tried to go straight to permanent shelter because that’s what local people said they wanted and this was a rare occasion when we had the money to do it,” said Douglas Keatinge of Oxfam International.

“On reflection we should have considered transitional housing, and that is now happening,” he said.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies has been asked to provide the new transitional shelters. Made of light-weight aluminium frames with wooden floors and walls, they are designed to be quick and easy to assemble.

But they are also robust enough to withstand the earthquakes which still rock the province with alarming regularity. The aim is to have everybody out of tents by the end of March next year.

The other major issue which hindered the humanitarian operation in its early phases was security. For 26 years Aceh had been the scene of a bitter conflict between the Indonesian government and separatist rebels of the Free Aceh Movement, known as Gam.

International aid organisations had to negotiate acute political sensitivities as well as ensuring the protection of their foreign and local staff.