Sumatra's Tsunami Research Center Seeks Help

Ella Meilianda of Syiah Kuala University and the Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Center

Jacopo Pasotti

When a large earthquake struck Indonesia's Sumatra island on 11 April, people in the city of Banda Aceh immediately began to run away from the coast, fearing that a giant wave could surge from the ocean, destroy houses in the city, and take lives. Rushing away from the coastline, even before a tsunami alarm sounds, is an understandable legacy of the devastating quake-triggered tsunami that struck the same area on 26 December 2004, killing about 240,000 people.

But last year, not everyone in the city reacted quickly to the quake, or in the right way, notes Ella Meilianda, a civil engineer at the Syiah Kuala University in Aceh who also works at the Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Center (TDMRC) set up in Banda Aceh after the 2004 disaster. "Early warning systems worked, but the city was not ready to react to an emergency," she says. "People avoided the new evacuation buildings [three-story quake resistant buildings accessible at any time in case of emergency]. Instead of escaping vertically, they preferred escaping horizontally. They jumped on motorbikes, cars, and got stuck in the labyrinthine roads of Aceh. … Few persons have been trained in dealing with hazards."

That's why Meilianda and others are concerned about the financial woes now facing TDMRC, which has conducted a variety of research, such as modeling the impacts of tsunamis on Banda Aceh, and developed programs to educate schools and other groups about how to react to earthquakes and the immense waves they can trigger. TDMRC was created out of the same huge $650 million fund, created by the European Union, World Bank, and various countries, that has paid for much of the remarkable reconstruction that occurred in Aceh since 2004. But that so-called Multi Donor Fund will conclude at the end of the year, leaving TDMRC with no budget to continue doing research.

Keeping the organization running for the next 5 years would require raising €1 million, according to its director, Muhammad Dirhamsyah. He says the local government still plans to kick in 10% of the center's roughly €200,000 budget this year—"enough to keep offices running"—and he hopes to get another 20% from national funding. But to keep conducting research and running most of its other programs, TDMRC still needs donations to make up the other 70% of its annual budget. The 2004 Aceh tsunami "is a warning for us to regain knowledge that is important to be passed to the next generation," Dirhamsyah says. "TDMRC could become the center of excellence of tsunami and disaster mitigation research studies in this sector of the Indian Ocean."

Meilianda points out that Indonesia rests on the meeting point of three tectonic plates, leaving the majority of the coasts vulnerable to tsunamis. "We need to look forward. We live in a risky region: Earthquakes are frequent, tsunamis may still occur," she says "Now we have tools that in many other disaster-prone regions are in place since decades. For example, we have produced the hazard risk-mapping for the province of Aceh, which includes all elements of risks, not only earthquakes and tsunamis, but also flooding, coastal erosion."

Meilianda now hopes to improve Banda Aceh's evacuation plans by drawing on geomorphological studies of the coastal area, indigenous knowledge, and archaeological history that might reveal how past tsunamis have affected the region. The center has also been monitoring continental plate movements using GPS and researching socioeconomic aspects of the community recovery process after the tsunami disaster. Such studies were not possible until now, Meilianda says, due to centuries of colonialism and the past 30 years of conflicts and political unrest in the Aceh region.

Disaster centers in the world are rare, notes Yasuo Tanaka, past director of the Kobe University's Research Center for Urban Safety and Security in Japan, which was set up in response to the 1995 earthquake that claimed the lives up 6000 people in the city of Kobe. Yet such centers play a key role in disaster mitigation and prevention studies, he suggests. The Kobe center, for example, develops studies on how to manage, communicate, and assess natural hazards. "Kobe University and Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh [to which TDMRC is connected] are both academic institutions which were in the heart of disaster," Tanaka says. "We have a duty of both contributing to the local society as well as of carrying out research. Other institutions seldom help the reconstruction of local society in a long term."

Tanaka suggests that a key contribution of a local university in or near a disaster area is archiving postdisaster scientific efforts. Also important, he says, is documenting the societal changes that result "so that [the] outside world can see how the disaster affects the society and individuals so differently depending on their social, cultural, and historical backgrounds." Kobe University has a library for archiving all records of the 1995 Kobe earthquake, for example. Earthquake-related natural "disasters in Italy, Haiti, and Japan have changed and affected their societies, but all differently. Without understanding these differences, we cannot communicate and help each other," Tanaka says.

Meilianda notes that her ancestors in Aceh have retained few records noting past natural disasters, perhaps because any records were destroyed by past tsunamis or by the various wars that have long plagued the region. If TDMRC can be placed on a stable financial future, she hopes that the organization can provide a base line of information to help make future disasters less deadly.