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Tsunami rebuilding stalls as survivors must confront government

Monday, May 16, 2005

DEAH GEULUMPANG, Indonesia -- Political squabbling, donor demands and government indecision have stalled the building of roads, water treatment plants and nearly 180,000 homes for survivors of last December's tsunami.

Aid agencies, which plan to spend more than $7 billion on tsunami relief across the Indian Ocean basin, have put massive building projects on hold while waiting for Indonesian authorities to come up with a solid plan. Only now, nearly five months later, are concrete reconstruction agreements being signed.

Meanwhile, survivors along the battered coasts of Aceh province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra have largely been left to fend for themselves while wondering whether they will rebuild their old homes and revive the fishing industry, their main livelihood.

"People are coming back here to nothing," said Herman Hasbalah, a 33-year-old village leader from Deah Geulumpang, where returning survivors sleep in a damaged coffee house and crowded tents.

"The government hasn't done anything and people are getting frustrated and angry," he said.

The earthquake and tsunami killed more than 180,000 people in 11 countries, and left about 50,000 missing and hundreds of thousands homeless. But the massive international relief effort that followed was credited with averting a health and food disaster.

Now the aid groups that were at the front lines of the relief effort are waiting for the government to provide guidelines for building clinics, schools, homes and roads in Aceh.

"We have not done any reconstruction. We cannot do it without a plan," Holger Leipe, head of International Red Cross operations in Aceh, said in an interview.

"If we put up a building and later it's pulled down, it would be a waste of donors' money," Leipe said. "To get it right, we have to have everyone on board."

The first sign of trouble was the government's master plan, released in February to criticism from Acehnese leaders for ignoring their input and barring reconstruction along the coast.

An amended draft released a month later was largely without specifics.

The government also set out to establish an agency to oversee the four-year, $4.8 billion reconstruction project. But with at least three ministries fighting for a say in the new body, it was not until April 30 that former Energy Minister Kuntoro Mangkusubroto was appointed to run it.

"It's shocking," Kuntoro told a news conference on May 9. "There are no roads being built, there are no bridges being built, there are no harbors being built. When it comes to reconstruction -- zero."

The government says the delay is due partly to the magnitude of the task -- rebuilding 179,000 houses and dozens of bridges and major roads that crisscross the province -- and the need to involve the local community in planning.

It also accuses some donors of setting overly strict conditions. It says donors have refused to release any aid until the government provides a detailed reconstruction blueprint and anti-corruption mechanism.

"Donors want to help but then they say they don't want this help to be corrupted," Planning Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati told The Associated Press. "The president assured them a system that includes monitoring and oversight would be established, but it has taken time to design."

Along Aceh's coast, life is slowly returning to the desolate landscape. Aid agencies have started building temporary homes and small shops sell fresh vegetables, packaged noodles and water. The reopened coastal highway is crowded with army vehicles, families on motorbikes and trucks delivering supplies.

This month, the government signed the first of a series of agreements paving the way for agencies to start more permanent rebuilding. The Red Cross has agreed to spend $600 million to build 22,500 homes, 110 clinics and 110 schools. The U.S. Agency for International Development will spend $245 million to rebuild a major road starting in July.

Indonesia and foreign donors agreed Tuesday to spend $250 million to build 20,000 homes, repair roads and bridges, and set up a system to recover lost land records.

Still, many of these projects are weeks away from starting. Meanwhile the landscape -- vast stretches of emptiness broken only by the occasional standing wall or coconut tree -- has changed little.


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