South Asia tsunami information   |   Information on Aceh

Aceh's big worries are water and sanitation

24 January 2005

More than three weeks after a tsunami wiped out much of Aceh's west coast, aid continues to arrive in a chaotic manner, with a lack of water, sanitation and food causing deep concerns to relief experts, the first detailed assessment of the region says.

Fishing and rice farming villagers on the region's remote west coast were hit harder than those in any other of Asia's tsunami-struck areas.

While the report highlights the huge and so-far successful efforts by Indonesian and foreign military and aid groups to keep communities alive, it also details a long series of shortcomings.

In an effort to get firsthand information to plan the continuing aid operation on the west coast, US helicopters flew 34 representatives from 14 groups, including the World Health Organisation, the Indonesian military, the Australian Government's aid arm, AusAID, and the International Red Cross, into four remote coastal areas for six days of assessment.

They focused on the west coast, as the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, and its less isolated surrounding areas have been better monitored and supplied.

The team found the tsunami destroyed virtually every village and town below 10 metres elevation along a 170-kilometre stretch of coastline.

The devastation reached between three and six kilometres inland and, in addition to the villages and towns, wiped out much of the road system, including 57 bridges.

The team's leader, Rob Holden, from the WHO, said a complete lack of sanitation along virtually the whole coast was the most serious risk facing an estimated 125,000 displaced people.

One problem was that survivors from a host of small villages were congregating in the larger towns of Meulaboh and Calang, where swelling numbers posed an immediate risk of a disease outbreak.

There were almost no latrines in the temporary camps where most people were living and so they were defecating in the open, often near rivers and ponds used for bathing.

"It needs to be addressed dramatically," Mr Holden said when the report was released at the weekend.

The biggest problem was providing adequate safe water and sanitation, and he would remain worried until that happened, he said.

While most survivors had received some food, usually delivered by helicopter, most of the food parcels contained no protein, oil, sugar or vegetables, the report said.

And while researchers found no cases of malnutrition, people could not be sustained on the modest amount of food now being distributed, they said.

There was an excess of field hospitals and highly trained foreign staff, with 20 surgeons based in Meulaboh at one stage, the report said. Simple clinics were needed, not high-tech hospitals.

While the relief operation "probably looks chaotic and it is chaotic", it was also going reasonably well given the size of the disaster and the remote location, Mr Holden said. "It's not been bad, this is not bad."

A big obstacle was the lack of experienced relief workers, because Aceh had been closed to most aid groups while the Government tried to suppress an independence movement.

"Some disasters we go to we have an operational presence and therefore you have a critical mass of seasoned humanitarian emergency workers or development workers there to get going," Mr Holden said.

"By and large we did not have that in Aceh so you are starting from a low base."

Matthew Moore

Information on Aceh   |   Peace Movement Aotearoa