Sopon Dechkla survived the tsunami that struck several countries around the Indian Ocean on 26th December 2004, by clinging to a palm tree at the Sofitel Khao Lak resort, where he worked as a driver. His wife, a cleaner at a neighbouring hotel, was one of perhaps 230,000 people who drowned in the deluge. The Sofitel, where 220 died, lies in ruins to this day, its roof tiles torn off and its windows shattered by the force of the waves. Mr Sopon has found work at the Sarojin, one of the first local resorts to reopen after the tsunami. It is fully booked over New Year despite high-season rates that start at $400 a night. But of the 6,500 hotel rooms in the area prior to the disaster, only 1,200 are back in business. Khao Lak, the part of Thailand hardest hit by the tsunami, is recovering. But progress is frustratingly slow—and, in some respects, unnecessarily so.
The same applies even more strongly to the Indonesian province of Aceh and the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, which were poor and war-torn before the tsunami struck, and suffered greater devastation when it did. Of the 1.8m people left homeless by the disaster, a minority have rebuilt their homes; others have found shelter with family or friends, or in relatively solid “transitional” homes provided by aid donors. But some 67,500 tsunami victims in Indonesia are still living in tents a year into the relief effort, while another 50,000 have crowded into temporary barracks. It will take another 18 months or so to build houses for them all (see chart). Some 500,000 Indonesians rely entirely on rations distributed by the World Food Programme. That is an improvement from 750,000 at the beginning of the year, but indicates how many still lack livelihoods.
By most accounts, the emergency-relief effort in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami was a notable success. Unlike in previous disasters of this magnitude, almost no one died from outbreaks of disease, lack of clean water or starvation in the wake of the catastrophe, even in remote islands off India and Indonesia. In some fields, the recovery has proceeded very quickly: most children in tsunami-affected areas are back in school, although not necessarily in a proper building. In Indonesia, for example, the United Nations Children's Fund has set up temporary schools for over 500,000 children.
The long haul
The transition from emergency relief to reconstruction has gone less smoothly. In both Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the authorities set up special agencies to oversee rehabilitation. That made sense, since the mammoth task would have overwhelmed existing government agencies, especially because the waves had swept away many of their staff and offices. But creating a parallel bureaucracy takes time, and is bound to provoke rivalry with the existing one. Indonesia's Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency (BRR) was not created until April, and was not fully operational for several months after that.
Money, in theory, should not have been a problem. The outpouring of sympathy after the tsunami resulted in pledges of over $13 billion in international aid of one sort or another. Donations from private individuals and companies alone came to more than $5 billion. Some charities, such as Médecins Sans Frontières, actually started refusing donations for tsunami victims, saying they already had as much money as they could use.
But donors have been slower to spend the money than to raise it. Of the $2 billion or so in promised aid that the government of Sri Lanka is tracking, only $1 billion has actually been handed over, and only $141m of that has been spent. These figures may exaggerate the donors' sluggishness, says Aidan Cox of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), who helped set up the tracking system—but they are probably not far off.
In any reconstruction effort, aid workers point out, there is always a trade-off between quality and speed. Given the amount of money they had to spend, and the amount of attention their work was receiving from the media, many agencies decided to make model projects out of their tsunami relief work.
But some delays are the result of simple ineptitude rather than complex planning. During the initial airlift, several charities flew in unsolicited, unwanted donations of winter clothing, which added to congestion at airports. More recently, aid agencies have bombarded fishermen with offers of new boats, but no one has paid to rebuild the factories that used to supply the ice to preserve their catch. No one seems to have spent much time thinking about interim measures. It was only recently that the BRR began a real push to get temporary shelters built to replace tent camps during the long wait for permanent housing.
Nor is the reconstruction effort evenly spread. In Thailand, the richer and relatively unscathed province of Phuket has received more aid than Phangnga, the province which includes Khao Lak. Groups with little political clout, such as illegal Burmese immigrants in Thailand, or Sri Lanka's Muslim minority, have got less than their fair share of assistance.
By the same token, the World Bank complains that fashionable causes, like health and education, have won more attention than equally worthy but less glamorous work, such as dredging swamped ports. Mr Cox of the UNDP says that of the $354m earmarked for road-building in Aceh, only $8m has actually been disbursed. No wonder, then, that of 3,000km (1,900 miles) of road rendered impassable, only 354km have been restored.
By far the biggest obstacle to the reconstruction effort, however, is the sheer scale of the devastation. Long swathes of coastline in Aceh rose or subsided during the earthquake that prompted the tsunami, leaving farmland submerged and coral reefs above water. Fields are strewn with boulders or sodden with salt water. Roads and ports have been washed away, making it hard to bring in heavy equipment or supplies. The temporary roads the Indonesian army has built are already eroding in the monsoon rains.
Skilled labour and building materials are also in short supply. There are simply not enough workmen, machines and supplies in Aceh to build more than 5,000 houses a month. Aid agencies, naturally, want to use timber from legal sources. But neither Sri Lanka nor Indonesia produces enough locally, so it has to be imported from Australia and New Zealand.
Even where land has been cleared and supplies are available, reconstruction often cannot begin straight away. Land disputes are legion, since the tsunami destroyed many boundary markers and deeds, if they existed in the first place. The huge number of deaths has generated plenty of inheritance disputes. Unscrupulous property developers are said to have seized valuable coastal land in Sri Lanka and Thailand to build new resorts. Suitable land will have to be found for some 30,000 families in Aceh who will have to relocate permanently, because their former property is no longer habitable.
Still, the World Bank and the BRR, in a recent report on the first year of reconstruction in Indonesia, argue that work has actually proceeded quickly compared to past disasters. It took seven years for a city as rich as Kobe in Japan to recover in terms of population, income and industrial activity after its earthquake in 1995, the report notes.
Setting up an early-warning system in the Indian Ocean to reduce the number of casualties from future tsunamis is also proving more difficult than expected. The UN agency in charge of the effort, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, is hoping to put a system of deep-sea sensors in place by 2008. It has held two conferences to discuss the scheme, but is short of money to implement it.
In the meantime, several countries are pressing ahead with interim systems of their own. India says it will spend 1.25 billion rupees ($26m) to set one up by 2007. Indonesia will soon have the first of half-a-dozen ocean-bed sensors in place off Sumatra. Thailand has built 39 of a planned 62 towers along the Indian Ocean, to house sirens and loudspeakers that will broadcast evacuation instructions in multiple languages. In mid-December, a careless technician activated the system by accident, causing a brief panic among tourists and residents alike.
Some good after evil
Politically, too, the report card is mixed. Optimists had hoped that a sense of solidarity in the wake of the tsunami would help bring an end to long-running conflicts in both Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The separatist rebels of both the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had, after all, already embarked on sporadic peace talks with the governments of Indonesia and Sri Lanka. In the end, however, the tsunami succeeded in reducing tensions in Indonesia, while raising them in Sri Lanka.
GAM, which was already on the defensive, seems to have lost weapons and fighters in the tsunami. The destruction of so many of Aceh's boats must have put the squeeze on the smuggling racket it ran to raise money. Since it did not control any territory of its own, it could not exploit the reconstruction effort for political or financial advantage. All this, coupled with some flexibility from Indonesia's new government, contributed to its decision to sign a peace agreement in August, which has proved remarkably durable so far.
The Tigers, on the other hand, do control large areas of northern and eastern Sri Lanka, and so ended up squabbling with the government over the huge amounts of aid on offer. Establishing a mechanism to administer the money meant tackling the very issues—over sovereignty and authority—that have proved the most intractable in Sri Lanka's faltering peace process. Mahinda Rajapakse, Sri Lanka's newly elected president, has threatened to scrap a deal on how to distribute aid in areas controlled by the Tigers, while Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tigers' leader, has threatened to return to war if the government does not offer an acceptable settlement next year. Renewed fighting would further slow the already sluggish reconstruction drive, and heap tragedy upon tragedy.