As Aceh Rebuilds, New Homes Remain Empty

BANDA ACEH, Aceh ~ Brightly colored new homes now dot the province of Aceh as it slowly rebuilds after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but some lie empty, pointing to the next big hurdle in the reconstruction effort.

Donors committed US$8 billion to Aceh after the giant waves tore through the staunchly Muslim province at the northern tip of Sumatra island, killing 168,000 people.

About $1.5 billion is set to be spent on housing, including the construction of 130,000 homes.

Government figures indicate a little over 58,000 have been built, but many lack piped water and electricity, discouraging people from occupying them and pointing to lagging infrastructure reconstruction.

“Coordinating infrastructure with housing is the next major challenge,” said James Adams, the World Bank’s vice president for the East Asia and Pacific region, after visiting local projects paid for by a $650-million fund the bank oversees.

The availability of housing and essential services such as water and power supply needed to be better aligned, he said.

The bank had been concerned about the pace of housing construction, but Adams said he had seen evidence of significant improvements during his early April tour, even though labor shortages were slowing progress.

“Six months ago the basic problem was getting houses built,” he said, adding the bank had learned lessons from its experience in the province.

“We have … just approved a major change in our emergency policy to give us essentially an ability to do what we’ve done in Aceh, but to do it more quickly,” he said.

The initiative includes the establishment of a team of emergency experts that the bank can draw from immediately a disaster strikes.

The infrastructure problem in Aceh is apparent in villages such as Lhok Nga that were totally destroyed by the tsunami.

New homes have been built and a number of people have moved into them, but others lie empty and villagers say that is partly because they lack electricity.

Many people in Aceh also still rely on daily water deliveries from tankers, such as those living in Tibang village, where more than a third of residents were killed by the tsunami.

A number of infrastructure projects follow after new homes rather than being integrated with them, complicating the reconstruction process.

“The reality is that this is the way things had to be,” said Geoffrey Read, an engineering consultant at the bank.

Around $100 million worth of projects were close to being implemented, he added, ranging from water supply to ports and sea defenses.

A total of $300 million is to be spent on infrastructure over the next three years, with more investment likely to follow after 2010.

Government figures show about 72,000 homes still need to be built, with the displaced still living in cramped barracks or forced to depend on friends and relatives.

There are complaints that some non-governmental organizations, under pressure to build houses, have failed to deliver good-quality homes resistant to earthquakes in one of the world’s most seismically active areas.

“I don’t know if my house will last. We have complained but they say they can’t do anything,” said a local worker.

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