Emergency Relief Work, Aceh Experience, Indonesia - 2004 Tsunami

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Courtesy of Water Environment Federation (WEF)

This paper reflects on the experiences of the author assisting in the international efforts in providing for the survivors of the 2004 Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami, in Aceh Province, Indonesia. It describes that event and the challenges faced after such a devastating event in a country already suffering due to a civil war.

The paper highlights the success of prioritising the sourcing and delivery of water and the provision of effective sanitary systems, as an essential way of minimising the chances of the spread of disease.

I conclude by discussing my options and thoughts regarding emergency response to such events and the lessons to be taken from it.

This paper reflects on the experiences of the author in water and sanitation emergency works, Aceh Province, Indonesia, in aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. The opinions stated are the view of the author and do not reflect the opinions of any organisation or person mentioned in the paper. This paper in presentation is supported by a photo slide show.

Dave Neru has spent the past 11 years in the water and wastewater industry, specialising in small water systems and emergency response. He is currently employed by Opus International Consultants as a Utilities Team Leader. He is the Administrator of the Water Industry Operators Group of New Zealand and a member of the New Zealand Water and Wastes Association and was the Business Manager for the Association from 2004-2005. Dave was awarded the New Zealand Special Service Medal on Boxing Day 2005 and NZ Operator of the Year 2005, for his efforts in Aceh.

On Boxing Day 2004, at around 9.20am local time, an earthquake measuring 10 on the ritcher scale occurred approximately 100 kilometres off the western coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatera. The earthquake generated two tsunami waves that slammed into the coast line of the northern Sumatera province of Aceh, minutes after the quake was generated.

The waves were reported to have travelled in the open ocean up to 600 miles per hour and each had a length, from the front of the wave to the back, of 100 kilometres. The first wave gained height once reaching the coast line of Aceh and averaged a height of 3-4 meters and travelled inland for distance up to 2 kilometres. Shortly after the first wave retreated, the second and more devastating wave arrived, which coastal evidence and local recollections have indicated had wave heights of between 10 and 15 metres and land infiltration to 8 kilometres inland.

After the earthquake and the resulting tsunami waves, Banda Aceh (estimated population: 800,000) the largest city in the province was reported to have lost a quarter of its population, Meulaboh, (estimated population: 75,000) the second largest city and located on the southern west coast, lost a third of its population and Calang, a city on the western coast between Banda Aceh and Meulaboh with an estimated population of 18,000, only had 20 survivors.

Between these cities on the western coast were an unknown number of small towns and villages that were wiped off the face of the earth - their fate never to be known.

The scale of this natural disaster had shocked the world and like a lot of other countries New Zealand was keen to help. As the on-duty senior manager for the New Zealand Water and Wastes Association, I placed a call to the Government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to offer what help we could as an Association whose membership is made up of a wide range of water professionals from scientists and engineers to treatment and reticulation operators.

The offer was taken up. Les Collins from Queenstown and I were seconded to Oxfam NZ to assist with the relief efforts in the Aceh Province. Les and I had worked together in the 1999 flood event in Queenstown, New Zealand and were classed as emergency and operational water and wastewater specialists. We had also both spent time in the New Zealand Army. Our brief was simple -”find water and get it to as many people as you can”.

We mobilised quickly and on the 4th of January, 2005 we landed in Indonesia, nine days after the devastating event occurred.

Aceh had been in civil war for a number of years with the Indonesian Military and Police fighting an Aceh Independent Movement (GAM). This played a little on our minds, but at the end of the day we were there to help the survivors of the earthquake and the tsunami.

The first sighting of damage was on the flight north and was located on the eastern coast of the province. Boats were seen well inland where you would not expect them to be. The land was flooded with sea water, roads and bridges were rubble, and no people were seen. Les turn to me in the helicopter and said “We’re a long way from home, now Dave.” The scenes of damage were shocking and amazing. Little did we know that these sights were to prove tame compared to what was to come.

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