6 Months after Java Quake, 80,000 Families Still Homeless

JAKARTA ~ Six months after a deadly earthquake hit Java, between 50,000 and 80,000 families still lack a proper roof over their heads as the rainy season approaches.

According to leading non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the May 27 disaster, which killed around 6,000 people, was “under-evaluated” and received insufficient aid, perhaps because of the massive South Asia earthquake just months earlier, in October 2005.

Some 300,000 homes were totally destroyed or seriously damaged by the quake, according to estimates by the Indonesian disaster management agency BAKORNAS.

At the epicenter of the quake, near Yogyakarta, it is necessary to head for the rural areas surrounding the historic city to fully appreciate the extent of the devastation. Few houses have been rebuilt other than by individual initiative and a disturbing number of people have only simple cover to protect them from the elements.

The situation is partly explained by the decision taken at the top to directly rebuild permanent houses for the survivors, without giving them a temporary shelter. But the plan appears to have taken too long to realize. The arrival of the wet season is imminent.

“I think we lost time because of the government and NGOs and some UN positions (that) that’s the way it needed to happen, without really fully appreciating the problems that we’re up against now,” said Zola Dowell, United Nations area coordinator for central Java.

She refused to call it a “mistake” but recognized that the question of the shelters “definitely is the major issue.”

In Yogyakarta, the authorities wished to avoid a repetition of the mistakes that followed the Indian Ocean tsunami, which devastated the north of Sumatra on December 26, 2004.

“Many (humanitarian) actors came in and built all manner of different types of shelters post-tsunami and it was very difficult to maintain some kind of control over standardization,” Pete Manfield, an official with the UN Development Programme (UNDP), explained to AFP.

The result is that in Aceh province many prefabricated shelters are now unhealthy, while a large number of survivors continue to live in them.

The solution of permanent housing proposed for Yogyakarta, however, ran up against the old evils of deadlines, corruption and bureaucracy that grip Indonesia.

“Although the government has a lot of money for reconstruction, it’s taking a long time to get this money out,” said Manfield.

“Because the rains are not going to wait for that money, the UN has stepped in to meet the shortfalls or the pressing humanitarian need to get the shelter over people’s heads.”

In an apparent about-face, the UN redoubled efforts to build temporary shelters.

Based on an average of five people per household, the UN estimates that between 250,000 and 400,000 Java quake victims are at risk, with the rainy season liable to bring with it a host of respiratory, intestinal and skin problems for survivors.

The emergency plan envisages the construction of simple roofs on a bamboo structure at a cost of between Rp1-2 million (US$109-218) apiece.

Some 35,000 of these shelters have already been erected and the UNDP hopes to have built 125,000 by the end of April. The materials used can be recycled in permanent houses.

The arrival of the rains brings another threat for quake survivors around Yogyakarta: from lahars – mudflows comprising volcanic debris and water that can cause widespread destruction.

The nearby volcano Merapi, which threatened to erupt a few weeks before the earthquake, has spewed thousands of tons of ash that now forms the dome of the mountain. The first villagers were recently evacuated from the area as rains dislodged some of the debris.

“There is a threat and it’s something that we have been looking (at) over the last several weeks,” said Dowell.

By Sebastien Blanc

Agence France-Presse

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