Lessons: How Indonesians dealt with their own tsunami tragedy

Carol RH Malasig

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

What's next after relief operations? Rebuilding what was lost.

WHAT'S NEXT? After relief comes another important task for the government: rebuilding communities. Photo by Noel Celis/AFP

MANILA, Philippines – The damage left by Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) is often compared to that of the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004

Though a bit different in scale (the Indian Ocean Tsunami affected several countries), both disasters claimed thousands of lives, left debris that caused delays in getting aid to affected residents, and cost billions in relief efforts and goods. 

Indonesia was one of the hardest hit countries by the Indian Ocean Tsunami. It left roughly 220,000 Indonesians either dead or missing. It destroyed 800 kilometers of coastline in the province of Aceh. Just months after, the island of Nias (also in Indonesia) was struck by an earthquake. It took more lives, destroyed infrastructure, and left people with no livelihood. 

International aid also poured in Indonesia the way it has been in the past few days for the Philippine provinces that were affected by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).

To make the rehabilitation process of Aceh and Nias efficient, the Indonesian government set up an agency that headed one of the largest humanitarian programs in history – Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi (BRR) or the Agency for the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of Aceh and Nias. The rehabilitation program cost about US$ 6.7 billion which was received from significant contributions from donor agencies and private citizens worldwide. It also involved the efforts of some 900 organizations.

From 2005 to 2009, the BRR worked with international agencies to reconstruct both Aceh and Nias. By now, the Indian Ocean Tsunami seems like a closed chapter in Indonesia’s history but at one point, the world also came together to help people whose lives were devastated by nature’s wrath. 


After the rehabilitation process, the BRR came out with an academic observation they called “10 Management Lessons for Host Governments Coordinating Post-disaster Reconstruction.”

Reading through the report, one cannot help but see similarities between Indonesia in 2004 and Eastern Visayas today.

“When BRR was first established to coordinate the reconstruction effort, it was far from clear how we would accomplish our task. No one had ever dealt with a natural disaster of this magnitude. It was like starting with a clean slate,” the paper’s preface said. However, it was clear to the members of the BRR what the endgame should be: they have to rebuild the lives of the Indonesians that were affected by the tsunami and the earthquake.

The 10 lessons were organized into three phases: organize, execute, and fund. These lessons sought to help governments that are facing or preparing for the event of a large-scale disaster – and even those that have been affected by a calamity and need to rebuild communities virtually from scratch.

Here are excerpts from the BRR report, useful in rebuilding liveable communities:


  • Quickly establish a coordinating agency with adequate powers
    • Governments must move quickly to clarify which agency will coordinate the post-disaster reconstruction program, what it is empowered to do, and when its mandate begins and ends.
    • Governments should also draw a line between the relief and reconstruction phases of responding to a natural disaster. Emergency relief focuses on preventing further death and disease following a disaster and providing humanitarian relief to its victims. Reconstruction, in contrast, focuses on rebuilding affected communities, which requires complex coordination, a longer timeframe, and deep local understanding.
  • Appoint a strong, experienced leadership team to gain full support of other government agencies and donor community
    • Appoint a strong and experienced leadership team to quickly garner trust from stakeholders and assert the coordinating agency’s central role in reconstruction. 
    • Organizationally, the agency should be able to mediate between competing interests, understand local conditions, and achieve results to win legitimacy for its formal mandate and gain credibility.
  • Maintain a “crisis mindset” through entire reconstruction effort
    • All througout the reconstruction period it is best to institutionalize and sustain a strong sense of urgency and flexibility among government agencies, donors, and NGOs throughout the entire reconstruction period. This is best done by setting up targets.
    • Reconstruction is not business as usual, and agencies must adapt their processes to reflect this reality.
    • Government procedures that may be appropriate under normal circumstances must be redesigned to take account of the emergency. 
    • Staffing norms must be overturned to attract the most capable people, from both within and outside government. 
    • Reconstruction necessarily takes place in confusing and often chaotic conditions, making it essential for the coordinating agency to have a bias for action and continually learn from and adjust to mistakes and changed circumstances. 
  • Build a strong implementation capability for the coordinating agency to fill reconstruction gaps
    • Take on a direct implementation role if reconstruction progress is delayed or threatened. 
    • Control of government financial resources brings direct responsibility for the success of funded projects.
    • Build a strong implementation capability within the coordinating agency to address emerging reconstruction gaps, but separate the coordinating and implementing functions within the agency.


  • First meet basic needs, fill supply chain gaps, build a coordination war room, and involve affected communities in reconstruction 
    • Begin with 4 pressing priorities before spending time on other activities that would benefit from more planning.
    • Fulfilling survivors’ basic needs is essential. This will restore some sense of normalcy.
    • Ensure supplies and building materials can reach disaster areas to keep pace with reconstruction and dampen inflationary pressures.
    • Build a data war room to gain an overview of planned projects and activities and their progress. The ability to know who is doing what, when, and where is the core data requirement for an effective coordinating agency.
    • Incorporate community needs during the planning phase to create a reconstruction plan that reflects the survivors’ actual needs.
  • “Build back better” at every opportunity 
    • Use reconstruction as an opportunity to improve on the status quo ante.
    • Don’t just rebuild what was destroyed – build better physical infrastructure.
    • Consult beneficiaries at the grassroots level to accommodate their needs and desires and build community capacities.
    • Give marginalized constituents a voice in rehabilitation and reconstruction activities.
    • Prepare the community for future disasters.
    • Manage expectations about what the rehabilitation and reconstruction agency can and cannot achieve (this was important for the BRR as it was a temporary agency).
    • Transfer innovations to the public sector with the understanding that they may need to be adapted to remain relevant in a non-reconstruction context.
  • Utilize key partner agencies to play supporting coordination roles
    • Enhance the effectiveness of the main coordinating agency by appointing supporting coordinators among major partner agencies. (Working together is key.)
    • Everyone can help. Maintain overall coordination authority, but delegate other large partner agencies to play supporting coordination roles.
    • However, somebody has to lead. Designate a clear line of authority over supporting coordination bodies to retain the supremacy of the main coordinating agency.
  • Manage beneficiary and donor expectations about pace and progress of reconstruction through constant communication
    • Transparency. Open and maintain two-way communication channels with the beneficiaries and donors to improve coordination and prevent misunderstandings.


  • Ensure integrity and accountability of funds to gain donor confidence and support 
    • Enact a comprehensive anti-corruption program to pre-empt corruption and demonstrate integrity.
    • Donors’ willingness to continue funding reconstruction programs can be sorely undermined by even the slightest whiff of corruption.
    • Disaster agencies often face a shortfall between pledges and the funds that actually flow into the disaster-affected areas. While Indonesia was blessed by a very successful post-tsunami appeal for funds, reports of corruption would have destroyed the confidence of donors and threatened the continued disbursement of committed funds.
    • Once again, transparency. Use the general public as the agency’s eyes and ears. Accept all complaints, review their veracity, and follow up with appropriate staff as needed
  • Mix diplomacy, authority, and flexibility to ensure funding flows meet actual needs
    • Use a range of influence skills to manage donors throughout the course of reconstruction. 
    • Donors bring different strengths and capabilities to reconstruction and it is important for coordinating agencies to recognize and accommodate these to gain the most benefit from their reconstruction partners.

One of the program’s aspects that proved to be a success in the reconstruction efforts is the improvement of Aceh’s infrastructure. Instead of just rebuilding what was destroyed, the BRR and the donors used to opportunity to make the lives of the tsunami and earthquake survivors better by building more infrastucture and generating more livelihood. 

In rebuilding the communities in Aceh and Nias, 155,182 laborers were given training. Major improvements in these affected areas were also made possible after the tragedy. 

  • 104,500 Small-Medium Enterprises (SMEs) destroyed, 195,726 SMEs received assistance
  • 139,000 houses destroyed, 140,304 permanent houses built
  • 73,869 hectares of agricultural lands destroyed, 69,979 hectares of agricultural land reclaimed
  • 1,927 teachers killed (Aceh), 39,663 teachers trained
  • 13,828 fishing boats destroyed, 7,109 fishing boats built or donated
  • 1,089 worship places destroyed, 3,781 worship places built or repaired
  • 2,618 kilometers of road destroyed, 3,696 kilometers of road constructed
  • 3,415 school facilities destroyed, 1,759 school facilities built
  • 517 health facilities destroyed, 1,115 health facilities constructed
  • 669 government buildings destroyed, 996 government buildings built
  • 119 bridges destroyed, 363 bridges constructed
  • 22 ports destroyed, 23 ports constructed
  • 8 airports and runways destroyed, 13 airports and runways constructed

The Philippines is getting billions of pesos in relief assistance. The United Nations has also flashed an appeal worth $301 million that will help not just in relief efforts, but in reconstruction as well.

After relief efforts, the government would soon have to move in to making the areas affected by Yolanda (Haiyan) liveable again. The effects of the typhoon and the storm surge are indeed tragic, but like Indonesia, we can also use the reconstruction efforts  to help the survivors live a better life.

All it takes is a proper system, cooperation, and a lot of faith. – Rappler.com

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