University of Tasmania
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At home in the post-tsunami landscape? : A case study of post-disaster housing in Aceh, Indonesia

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posted on 2023-05-27, 10:47 authored by Elliott, CL
On December 26th 2004 the second largest earthquake on record occurred off the coast of northern Sumatra, Indonesia, triggering tsunami waves reaching 15 metres above sea level. In Aceh, the northernmost province of Sumatra, more than 167,000 lives were lost and half a million people were left without shelter. The international response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was unprecedented in terms of the amount of aid funding, much of this donated to aid organisations by private individuals. This funding enabled a major housing reconstruction effort in Aceh, with approximately 100 international non-government organisations (INGOs) involved in housing programs. The scale of the disaster combined with complex pre-disaster conditions in Aceh ensured that the reconstruction effort was conducted under difficult circumstances. Prolonged conflict between the Acehnese Freedom Fighters (GAM) and the Indonesian military had contributed to livelihood losses, high levels of poverty, low education rates, and low levels of trust in foreign organisations and the national government. Despite these challenging circumstances, more than 125,000 aid houses had been built in Aceh within five years of the tsunami. While there has been research into the approaches and outcomes of post-disaster housing programs in Aceh, little is known about the experiences of those living in this housing. In response, this thesis reports on an in-depth qualitative case-study in one rural village in Aceh. The research was conducted with inhabitants of post-disaster housing built by two large international NGOs and was designed to give voice to their experiences, views and priorities. I employed a multi-method approach using interviews, visual elicitation and ethnographic observation to elucidate participants' housing experiences. Analysis of field materials was thematic and iterative. I report four key findings. First, despite the disruption of the tsunami, participants had a strong, ongoing sense of place, one tied to their coastal location, which was an important source of political and cultural capacity. This finding supports efforts to ensure that housing reconstruction takes place in situ whenever possible. Second, the design of the post-disaster houses and re-settlement plans challenged the rural livelihood practices of inhabitants. Both small plot sizes and relocation of some post-disaster houses away from livelihood sites created difficulties for participants. These factors particularly impacted on women's abilities to earn an income while caring for children. This finding supports integrated approaches to post-disaster aid that recognise the interdependence of housing and livelihood needs. Third, participants were engaged in a dynamic process of adapting to post-disaster houses while also adapting these houses to their way of life. Participants were both grateful for the gift of these houses and acutely aware of how they altered the material and cultural fabric of their community. Through studying how participants inhabit post-disaster housing, it is possible to understand how their housing culture is not simply a historic tradition, but rather a living and dynamic expression of an ecology of relations involving cultural norms, values and place-based identities. Fourth, participants had limited opportunities to influence the design and construction of post-disaster housing, although these were greater with one INGO than the other. The capacity of participants to influence housing reconstruction was strongly shaped by the relationships established between village leaders and on-ground INGO staff. As shown by their subsequent adaptation of post-disaster housing to better suit their sense of place and identity, participants had considerable underutilised capacity to participate in the planning, design and building of their new houses. Increased local participation in housing reconstruction is likely to ensure that intrinsic relationships between everyday living patterns, livelihood activities and built structures are re-established. I conclude from this research that the process of providing post-disaster housing cannot be divorced from pre-existing socio-cultural, economic, political and environmental relationships. To disregard these relationships in the planning, design and construction of post-disaster housing disempowers local communities and challenges their long term viability. I thus advocate a relational approach to post-disaster housing provision which is attuned to cultural as well as material needs, and to their interactions. This approach involves five elements: respecting sense of place, re-establishing homes rather than building houses, creating adaptable houses, integrating landscape, livelihood and housing, and empowering community participation in the reconstruction of their houses.


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