Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Residents overlook a cookie-cutter hilltop settlement in Aceh built with aid money
Residents overlook a cookie-cutter hilltop settlement in Aceh, Indonesia, built with aid money. Many of the houses sit empty as there is no running water. Photo by Indrajeet Rajkhowa

The Empty Houses That Foreign Aid Built

After the devastation of the 2004 tsunami, aid agencies promised to rebuild Indonesia “better.” Fifteen years later, their failures are all too obvious.

Authored by

by Sonali Prasad
Photos by Indrajeet Rajkhowa

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In a quiet corner of Indonesia, the Indian Ocean rises up in a low wave and spreads out its wide, frothy collar as it washes up along the shore. The city just beyond its reach in the Sumatran province of Aceh is centuries old, but with its polished white mosque and young roads, there is an illusion of freshness to some pockets. In a beautiful garden near one of the city’s ports grows a big tree with red flowers—possibly royal poinciana—and on an evening in May, the breeze rustles through the branches, dropping the petals and coloring the earth. The wind brings respite from the salty humidity, but there is something in the air that lingers longer than the scent of the tree’s flowers, longer than the holy siren of Ramadan. It is the sense of something gone awfully wrong; a hasty cover-up of a crime scene.

Without the signboards at the garden’s entrance and the standing ruins of a destroyed hospital in the background that has the date 26 DES 04 spray-painted on its gray walls, visitors would not know what lies beneath the grass: around 14,264 shrouds, no names inscribed, no numbers. This site in Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh, was chosen for a mass grave in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami nearly 15 years ago. Bloated bodies from around the city were laid to rest here.

mass grave of more than 14,000 tsunami victims in Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

A tree marks the mass grave of more than 14,000 tsunami victims in Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

The earthquake that had triggered the gargantuan waves on December 26, 2004, had been under the sea, just 255 kilometers southeast of Banda Aceh. The US Geological Survey estimated that the tsunami, which measured at least 9.0 in magnitude, released the energy of 23,000 atomic bombs. Nearly 228,000 people from more than a dozen countries were reported dead or missing, including 167,540 from Indonesia.

The disaster hit Aceh the hardest. The tsunami is the blight locals rarely speak about, but if one stays long enough, there is a chance it’ll make its way into conversations as dusk settles and people sit in their courtyards overlooking the ocean.

When the tsunami leveled the province, 463 local and international organizations and nonprofits scrambled to help with Aceh’s resurrection. They raised as much as US $7.7-billion, an unprecedented amount of aid money for a developing country. Private donors supporting the nonprofits were moved by the visuals of muddy flatlands where civilization had once been, mountains of rubble, and mass graves that were broadcast all over the world. They were stunned by the waves that had soared to more than 30 meters—taller than the coconut trees.

The agencies consulted with the Indonesian government, and under presidential orders, coordinating agency Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi (BRR)—or the Agency for Rehabilitation and Reconstruction—was set up to oversee and streamline the efforts for a four-year period. With BRR’s input, the aid agencies hastily built 140,000 homes, close to 3,700 kilometers of road, 1,700 schools, nearly 1,000 government buildings, and 36 airports and seaports. In the reconstruction effort, observers saw the potential for a silver lining—they hoped it would ultimately propel the province into greater prosperity. The tsunami had brought much-needed peace to the region, ending a violent, three-decade civil war and creating an opening for progress.

Banda Aceh after the 2004 tsunami

Two weeks after the tsunami, a coastal neighborhood in Banda Aceh was a wasteland. In addition to Indonesia, the tsunami battered countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Somalia. Photo by ChooYoun-Kong/AFP via Getty Images

Aceh’s reconstruction was, in many regards, remarkable, and the international community hailed some initiatives as great successes, but—given the sheer volume of multidonor aid that had to be used within a tightly compressed timescale—its comeback story was never going to be perfect.

Now, looking at Aceh nearly 15 years later, fissures in its recovery are still visible. The aid agencies had subscribed to the philosophy of “build back better,” intending to leave behind improved infrastructure and socioeconomic conditions, but foreign organizations parachuted in with little local knowledge and could not balance the communities’ needs with their own agendas. Agencies largely achieved the common goal of providing bigger and higher-quality houses, yet the expedited rehabilitation programs overlooked crucial long-term factors such as livelihood and disaster preparedness. Aceh would have been much worse off without the aid, but whether the goal of “better” was fully achieved is debatable.


In villages around Banda Aceh and along the western highway—225 kilometers of which was rebuilt by the US Agency for International Development—abandoned houses begin to appear, along with deserted schools, hostels, and markets. While the overall population of Banda Aceh and its suburbs has rebounded to 250,000, close to what it was before the disaster, displacement and relocation have rendered some neighborhoods ghost towns. A half hour’s drive from the city, on top of a hill, is the Indonesia-China Friendship Village, which was built after the disaster and is more commonly known as Jackie Chan Town after the Hong Kong movie star who made a donation and paid a brief visit. Situated 300 meters above sea level and 1.5 kilometers inland from the ocean, the relocation site is above the reach of future waves. The village originally rehoused some 2,400 people, an unusually diverse community that included residents selected by BRR from different areas and backgrounds, with no one group or ethnicity dominating. In 2014, when the last survey was conducted, only 1,200 settlers remained. Today, many of the houses and an open market space are empty.

Nilawati, a tsunami survivor, runs a small grocery shop in the village next to her lime-green house. While doling out candy to a child over the counter, she talks about how people left because the homes were too far from their places of livelihood. The village’s remote location, nearly 17 kilometers from Banda Aceh, increased transportation pressures on farmers, fishermen, drivers, service workers, and small shop owners. “There is no fish here,” Nilawati says. “The fishermen went back to the sea.” Nilawati’s husband, who was a fisherman prior to the tsunami, now helps his wife run the modest store.

Nilawati, a tsunami survivor, runs a small grocery shop in a village built inland by an aid agency, but many of her neighbors have moved away.

Nilawati, a tsunami survivor, runs a small grocery shop in a village built inland by an aid agency, but many of her neighbors have moved away.

But Jackie Chan Town is a rare example: much of the redevelopment in and around Banda Aceh occurred in coastal zones, which was problematic too. A study published in Nature Sustainability shows that reconstruction took place in tsunami-affected areas because some agencies were pressured by their donors to quickly rebuild the destroyed parts of the city and local authorities did not have enough funds for land purchases. Aid providers rebuilt homes on the same plots that had been ravaged by the tsunami in order to avoid displacing the residents. According to the researchers, in doing so, agencies adhered to a long-established humanitarian principle to help survivors return to their previous places of residence whenever possible following a natural disaster.

And yet, a decade after the tsunami, only about half of the houses in coastal affected areas were still occupied by the aid beneficiaries. Many tsunami survivors who could afford it moved inland for safety. Demand for properties in tsunami-safe locations farther inland triggered a price hike, making them unaffordable to poorer residents. At the same time, rental prices for the newly built empty homes near the coast dropped, drawing in lower-income renters from other regions who had not witnessed the tsunami. The situation has left poorer people disproportionately at risk of coastal disaster.

As the sea pummeled the coast, Anggi Pramana and his family were safe in the north Aceh village of Lhoksukon, roughly 230 kilometers from Banda Aceh and about 15 kilometers inland. But the lure of employment drew him to the hazard zone. The 34-year-old, now a cable technician, rented one of the empty aid houses only 500 meters from the beach in the tightly clustered settlement of Blang Oi. He lives there with his wife, son, and sister. The owner lost all his family members to the raging water and moved to the mountains in the city of Jantho, 60 kilometers away. Pramana’s family has made the house pretty with wallpaper, wedding photos, and billowing mint green curtains. Pramana is scared to live in a disaster-prone area. “But only in this place can I afford a home,” he says.

After the tsunami, Anggi Pramana relocated from a safe area to Banda Aceh in search of a job.

After the tsunami, Anggi Pramana relocated from a safe area to Banda Aceh in search of a job.

This leads to the conundrum of who should decide where to build after a disaster. In several cases, a few village leaders made decisions for entire communities during consultations with aid agencies. “Maybe in the future, our recommendation is that people are not only asked as a community, but also asked one by one,” says Ibnu Mundir, a researcher at the International Centre for Aceh and Indian Ocean Studies (ICAIOS) who was part of the study in Nature Sustainability.


The concept of building back better was first popularized by former US president Bill Clinton, who served as the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery. He explores the idea in a 2006 report titled Key Propositions for Building Back Better, though agencies had already been operating with it in mind in Indonesia. It has since become one of the core ideologies for post-disaster recovery projects. Clinton’s report listed 10 principles to tackle recovery in a holistic fashion, which according to Michael Boyland, a researcher from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) Asia, were fairly aspirational and top-down in nature. They left room for broad interpretation and lacked specifics on how to implement them in a local context.

Map of Aceh, Indonesia

Map data by OpenStreetMap via ArcGIS

Guidance from BRR was not comprehensive either. Many of the nonprofits started building much before BRR could realistically come up with its housing guidelines in 2006. When the guidelines did emerge, they did not address all of the agencies’ concerns, such as whether landless former renters were to be given land or not. A 2007 report by Habitat International indicates that many of the nonprofits that had arrived to provide emergency aid had surplus funds so expanded their efforts to reconstruction. But they lacked expertise and were not able to provide safe and good-quality units equipped with infrastructure for water, sanitation, and roads. In some cases, their funds dried up before the settlements could be completed.

Just off the rebuilt highway, a 47-kilometer drive south from Banda Aceh, kids splash under a quaint little waterfall. Nearby, in Baroh Krueng Kala village, Mustika Wati, a 35-year-old survivor, lives in an aid house built by local NGO Mamamia. Though the house is bigger than what she had before the tsunami, the walls and the ceiling contain asbestos—a carcinogen found in various building materials. She is aware that the substance is dangerous, but she still lives here with her sister, brother, and two young children as she feels it is her only option.

Her house is not the only one that was built with asbestos. In 2007, anti-asbestos groups burned down 204 houses containing asbestos that had been built by a local organization, Bakrie Family Institution. The Guardian reported that a contractor working on behalf of Australian Aid also used the hazardous substance in schools and village halls. Asbestos is not banned in Indonesia, but it is illegal in Australia, and had been prohibited in the contract. When Australian Aid discovered the breach in 2007, the agency demanded the contractor replace all asbestos products and absorb the expense.

The house Mustika Wati and her family were given after the tsunami contains carcinogenic building material.

The house Mustika Wati and her family were given after the tsunami contains carcinogenic building material.

Within the missteps are lessons that can be applied to future disaster responses, says Boyland. He and his colleagues from SEI are in the process of evaluating how the build-back-better approach has played out in the coastal city of Tacloban in the Philippines, where recovery from 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan is ongoing. “Aceh served as a testing ground for what build back better is beyond principles, and almost a decade later, Tacloban’s recovery was likely better informed in terms of how to operationalize it and ensure more effective and holistic recovery interventions,” he explains. The principles of build back better have been applied to various disaster recoveries such as those following Japan’s tsunami in 2011 and the Nepal earthquake in 2015.


Housing reconstruction was just one aspect of the multidimensional recovery in Aceh. Remaking all the infrastructure that was lost to the sea was a gargantuan endeavor. Yet it was not just buildings that collapsed, but an entire fabric of families, relationships, friends, responsibilities, and habits formed over years that unraveled in a sudden release of strain between the tectonic plates.

Some Acehnese found that their livelihoods could not recover properly in the altered landscape. Former farmland was now inundated by the sea and food security became a problem. In one night, Aceh turned from a rice-surplus province to a rice-deficit one. Agencies tried solving these issues with grants, loans, and economic assistance through livestock and agricultural programs.

Despite all of the investment, Aceh failed to flourish, says Juanda Djamal, who was a public relations director for BRR. “We hoped what we invested [in reconstruction] would become capital for growth. But I didn’t see the [local] government take it as such kind of investment.” If provincial authorities had managed to bring in economic opportunities using the newly built infrastructure, then Aceh could have realized sustained development, he says. Today, however, the province is among the poorest in Indonesia despite being rich in resources such as oil, natural gas, and minerals.

A woman gazes out at the Indian Ocean from the Indonesian province of Aceh, nearly 15 years after a tsunami devastated the region.

A woman gazes out at the Indian Ocean from the Indonesian province of Aceh, nearly 15 years after a tsunami devastated the region.

When it came to the fishing communities, 70 percent of Aceh’s small-scale fleet had been destroyed. Nonprofits, again, in a rush to show visible support, went into a tizzy supplying fishing boats without fully considering the technical requirements specific to the conditions in Aceh. According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the vessels they commissioned were dangerously poor in quality. Some builders used inferior wood, thin planks, and the wrong material for fastenings, for example, or made mistakes in the construction. The boats required significant maintenance and had short life spans. As a result, fishers mainly use them for purposes other than fishing or abandoned them on beaches across Aceh.


In Banda Aceh, wedged among the array of aid houses, stand four tall buildings that serve as both a comfort and a reminder: disaster may strike again. The evacuation buildings are unmistakably the shiniest features of the city’s newly built landscape. Multiple columns run through the structures so that in the case of an earthquake or tsunami, the building can withstand shaking and the impact of surging debris. The lower floors are open to let the waves pass through. In case of an alert, locals by the sea are advised to seek “vertical evacuation” by getting to the higher floors of a tower rather than attempting to move inland. The buildings—three of which were donated by the Japanese government—are considered one of the big success stories out of disaster mitigation efforts implemented in Aceh. However, during a Magnitude 8.6 earthquake in 2012, many people living along the coast, unsure of the efficacy of the buildings, chose to run right past them. Fortunately, no tsunamis followed that quake.

The lower floors of an evacuation building in Banda Aceh are open to let waves pass through. The multiple columns are designed to help the building withstand shaking and the impact of surging debris.

The lower floors of an evacuation building in Banda Aceh are open to let waves pass through. The multiple columns are designed to help the building withstand shaking and the impact of surging debris.

After the 2004 disaster, international agencies also built a network of 22 buoys connected to seafloor sensors. The network was deployed to transmit advance warnings for a country that perches on a subduction zone and is home to 127 active volcanoes. In 2016, an earthquake in western Indonesia, near Aceh, revealed that none of the buoys worked anymore. Vandals had disabled some; others had fallen into disrepair, neglected because of a lack of money for maintenance. Since 2004, there have been at least four tsunamis in Indonesia that resulted in the loss of life and property. Many more earthquakes have occurred in the region. Tsunamis in Palu and Sunda Strait last year alone claimed more than 2,400 lives—a number that might have been much lower had the early warning systems been in working condition.

If a tsunami strikes Aceh again, the toll on young people could be especially high. Aceh has as many as 457 schools in high tsunami risk zones, and surveys carried out by Banda Aceh’s Syiah Kuala University a couple of years ago indicate that most of them are ill-prepared. “The 2004 tsunami was on Sunday fortunately,” Mundir, the scientist from ICAIOS had said to me earlier, glancing at the calendar.

Following the 2004 disaster, the government tried to establish a buffer zone with no permanent construction of new housing within two kilometers of affected shoreline, but it quickly fizzled. Leaders of certain fishing communities in Aceh vehemently opposed the idea because it pushed them away from their livelihoods.

One day, I visit a man named Baharuddin in Lam Teungoh, a small community 20 minutes outside of Banda Aceh. A short walk from his house, an inlet opens up into the vast sea. Standing on the pier, the 65-year-old chief fisherman watches a crew prepare a boat for an excursion. When the tsunami came 15 years ago, Baharuddin heard the ominous, hollow roar of big water after he had escaped to the surrounding hills. Most of his family—including his parents, wife, son, and four daughters—perished. Yet, Baharuddin disagreed with the idea of a coastal buffer and refused to relocate. Others shared the sentiment; in the face of strong opposition to the coastal buffer in Aceh, the government revoked its proposal in mid-2005.

Devotees pray at the Baiturrahman Grand Mosque during Ramadan in Banda Aceh. The mosque survived the 2004 earthquake and tsunami and served as a temporary shelter.

Devotees pray at the Baiturrahman Grand Mosque during Ramadan in Banda Aceh. The mosque survived the 2004 earthquake and tsunami and served as a temporary shelter.

Climate scientists exhort the idea of establishing buffer zones and employing similar so-called adaptation practices, but the burden of implementation often lies mostly on the disadvantaged. In Sri Lanka, for example, which suffered damage from the same tsunami as Aceh, the government set up a coastal buffer in places and relocated residents, affecting fishermen’s livelihoods and exacerbating their travel costs. However, locals soon found out that the zone limits had not been based on community consultations or direct tsunami damage. They grew suspicious that the rules only applied to those who had lost their houses but not to the tourism enterprises that were allowed to rebuild within the zones. After much opposition, the government was forced to relax its rules and people were allowed to repair and rebuild their houses in coastal areas if they chose to.

Despite living so close to the water with no sea walls for protection, Baharuddin says he is not scared of another qayamat, or doomsday. When I ask him about it, as we look out at the sea, he wags his chin side to side, indicating his acceptance of nature.


During my last day in Banda Aceh, I pause at the sprawling and beautifully designed tsunami museum, where the mangled wreckage of a police helicopter sits by the ticketing counter. Inside, past a dark and narrow corridor between two high walls of water that resonate with a sound mirroring the dreadful rumble of the 2004 tsunami, is a chamber shaped like a tapering chimney with the Arabic inscription for Allah written at the very top to reflect the religious obedience of the Acehnese. The names of 1,000 lost souls are inscribed on the circular walls. A man walks in, searching for the name of his brother in the jumble of letters. When he finds it, he lets out a sigh and walks past me with his head down, through the corridor and out into the altered landscape.