Ten years after the tsunami – the benefits of building back better

Picture this: It’s a Sunday in late December. You’re woken by a strong earthquake early in the morning and you know something is wrong. Soon, you’re running from the waters of a tsunami that’s flattening almost everything in its wake. You reach the top of a hill, along with others some of whom have been injured in the scramble to escape the water.

Looking back at the town of Banda Aceh below you, you see a picture of devastation. Trees, houses and roads have been washed away. Debris is piled everywhere – sheet metal, rubble, branches….and bodies. You’ve lost everything and you have no idea if or how your family members have survived. All infrastructure is gone. It suddenly occurs to you – I’ve survived this disaster, but what am I going to drink, eat? Where am I going to sleep?

The Indian Ocean tsunami which struck Banda Aceh ten years ago, on the 26th of December 2004, killed an estimated 170,000 people on this northern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra island. It also left tens of thousands more without food, clothing or shelter.

The Muhammadiyah Primary School in Banda Aceh suffered terribly on that day – the original school buildings were destroyed by the tsunami and only 17 of its 300 pupils survived that day.The school buildings were semi-permanent structures made of concrete and wood that would often let in the rain. The desks and chairs had been made from thin plywood.

UNICEF vowed to ‘Build Back Better’ to ensure that a new Muhammadiyah school would be able to withstand future natural disasters.

After the tsunami, engineers designed new school buildings to be earthquake-proof, with deeper foundations and stronger support systems. The desks now have thick wooden surfaces bolted to metal legs.

“We feel very comfortable now knowing that the children are more secure,” says Ibu Zahariah, the head teacher.

Muhammadiyah primary school became the blueprint for more than 300 schools that UNICEF rebuilt in Aceh province after the tsunami.

Students also regularly practice their earthquake drill. When the alarm sounds, they drop to the floor and shelter under their desks, away from the danger of glass windows. They know when the shaking has stopped they must go outside.

During the drill, they pour out of their classrooms into the central yard where they line up in groups and their teachers count them. They also know basic first aid, and where to find stretchers to assist friends that may have been injured.

Students protect themselves head with a bag overhead during an earthquake drill at Muhammadiyah 1 Primary school in Banda Aceh. © UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Achmadi
Students protect themselves with their schoolbags during an earthquake drill at Muhammadiyah Primary School in Banda Aceh. © UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Achmadi

11-year-old maths-whizz Nasywa Zulkarmain knows all about the tsunami from her parents and older siblings. The family survived by jumping in their car and driving to higher ground.

“I’m afraid of earthquakes,” says the grade 6 pupil who was just one-year-old when the tsunami struck. “But I also know what to do,” she says.

Head teacher Ibu Zahariah was devastated in 2004 when so many of her pupils died in the tsunami. Now she knows children like Nasywa will have a much better chance of survival if another tsunami strikes Banda Aceh.

“I don’t think the children would panic,” she says. “It’s a relief to know that they’re prepared and they would be able to protect themselves.”

UNICEF has worked hard not just to rebuild infrastructure but to build that infrastructure back better. Ten years later, projects which UNICEF started up during our humanitarian response to the tsunami are still benefiting the community.

A longer version of this post originally appeared here.

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