Saturday, 20 December 2014

The long-term benefits of Building Back Better

Students carry  a victim during an earthquake drill at Muhammadiyah 1 Primary school in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. © UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Achmadi

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia, October 2014 - Picture this: It’s a Sunday morning in late December in Banda Aceh. You’re awaken by a strong earthquake early in the morning and you know something is wrong.

Soon, you’re running away from the forceful tsunami water that flattens almost everything in its wake. You’ve lost sight of family members, and your only thought is saving your life by getting to higher ground. You reach the top of a hill, along with others, some of whom have been injured in the scramble to escape the water.

Looking down at the town of Banda Aceh below you, you see a picture of devastation. Trees, houses and roads have been washed away. Debris is piled everywhere – sheet metal, rubble, branches….and bodies. You’ve lost everything and you have no idea if or how your family members have survived. All infrastructure is gone. And as your mind tries to come to terms with what has just happened, it suddenly occurs to you – I’ve survived this disaster, but what am I going to drink, eat? Where am I going to sleep?

This is what tens of thousands of people experienced when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck Banda Aceh ten years ago on the 26th of December 2004 and killed an estimated 170,000 people on this northern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra island. It also left tens of thousands more without food, clothing or shelter. In the immediate aftermath, UNICEF stepped in to help provide some of the basic necessities, like safe drinking water, one of the organizations’ core commitments for children in emergencies, to reduce the risk of water-borne diseases that often causes many deaths.

Safe water for 100,000 IDPs

Soon, the organisation had identified a water treatment plant in Lambaro, a suburb of Banda Aceh unaffected by the tsunami, which had fallen into disrepair. UNICEF helped Indonesian engineers and technicians to get the plant up and running again.

“We worked day and night around the clock,” says Teuku Novizal Ayub, the former Director of the plant.

The Lambaro Water Treatment Plant feeds into the town’s piped system, supplying about 50,000 people with safe drinking water. © UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Achmadi

The plant provided water for around 100,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) who were living in camps in and around Banda Aceh.

But crucially, the work was done with a longer term goal in mind.

“We tried to make sure that the work we did created a sustainable resource so that it would continue to provide clean water for as long as possible,” says Mr Ayub.

Today, ten years since that disastrous morning, the plant at Lambaro continues to serve the people of Banda Aceh. The water it processes feeds into the town’s piped system, supplying around 50,000 people with safe drinking water.

UNICEF’s work on the water treatment plant is just one example of the organisation’s approach to ‘Building Back Better’ in the aftermath of Indian Ocean tsunami.

Building Better Schools

Children at Muhammadiyah 1 primary school in Banda Aceh are also benefitting from this approach. The original school buildings were destroyed by the tsunami. Only 17 of its 300 pupils survived that day.

The school buildings were semi-permanent structures made of concrete and wood that would often get flooded in during rain. The desks and chairs had been made of thin plywood.

UNICEF vowed to ‘Build Back Better’ to ensure that a new Muhammadiyah school would be able to withstand future natural disasters. After the tsunami, engineers designed new school buildings to be earthquake-proof, with deeper foundations and stronger support systems. The desks now have thick wooden surfaces bolted to metal legs.

“We feel very comfortable now knowing that the children are more secure,” says Ibu Zahariah, the head teacher.

Muhammadiyah primary school became the blueprint for more than 300 schools that UNICEF rebuilt in Aceh province after the tsunami.

Sheltering under the desks during an earthquake drill at Muhammadiyah 1 Primary School in Banda Aceh. New school buildings were designed to be earthquake resistant and equipped with desks with thick wooden surfaces bolted to metal legs. © UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Achmadi

Students also regularly practice their earthquake drill. When the alarm sounds, they drop to the floor and shelter under their desks, away from the danger of glass windows. They know when the shaking has stopped they must go outside.

During the drill, they pour out of their classrooms into the central yard where they line up in groups and their teachers count them. They also know basic first aid, and where to find stretchers to assist friends that may have been injured.

11 year old maths-whizz Nasywa Zulkarmain knows all about the tsunami from her parents and older siblings. The family survived by jumping in their car and driving to higher ground.

“I’m afraid of earthquakes,” says the grade 6 pupil who was just one year old when the tsunami struck. “But I also know what to do,” she says.

Students protect themselves head with a bag overhead during an earthquake drill at Muhammadiyah 1 Primary school in Banda Aceh. © UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Achmadi

Head teacher Ibu Zahariah was devastated in 2004, when so many of her pupils died in the tsunami. Now she knows children like Nasywa will have a much better chance of survival if another tsunami strikes Banda Aceh.

“I don’t think the children would panic,” she says. “It’s a relief to know that they’re prepared and they would be able to protect themselves.”

UNICEF worked hard not just to rebuild infrastructure but to build that infrastructure back better. Ten years later, projects which UNICEF started up during its humanitarian response to the tsunami are still benefitting the community.