In Aceh, recovery effort rides on roads

Some 948 miles were wrecked by the tsunami, creating recovery bottlenecks.

Most days Farid Maulidi spends patching up a makeshift highway - filling in holes, repairing culverts, shoveling sand, directing traffic. As civil engineering jobs go, it's far from prestigious. But as long as it keeps the road open, that's what matters to those living along Aceh's rugged west coast, where post-tsunami reconstruction relies heavily on roads like this one.

Last December, this rural landscape linked by a two-lane ribbon of blacktop was pummeled into silence. Entire villages were wiped out, along with the roads and cables that connected them to the outside world.

Today, as a massive international aid effort breathes new life into Aceh, traffic is heavier than ever along sections of the highway that winds 150 miles from the provincial capital Banda Aceh at the northern tip of Sumatra island, down the west coast to Meulaboh. But many stretches are impassable, or barely functional.

The tsunami completely or partially destroyed some 948 miles of roads - roughly equivalent to the distance between Chicago and New York City. Economic recovery is riding on these vital links for trade and aid. Despite billions of dollars in aid inflows, the World Bank has warned that economic stagnation could push another 600,000 people in Aceh below the poverty line within the next six to 18 months.

"The road isn't just a logistics problem - it's a lifeline and the key to a genuine recovery. If you're not connected by road, your opportunities for getting yourself back on your feet are drastically reduced," says Imogen Wall, a spokeswoman for the UN Development Program.

Washington has promised $245 million over the next three years to rebuild the highway to Meulaboh. In the interim, it's repairing the first 50 miles of road from Banda Aceh to Lamno, trying to keep traffic moving until the new road is in place.

"We consider this to be the economic backbone of the west coast. If you want to make anything happen, the best communications link is that road," says Muhammad Khan, infrastructure team leader for USAID.

Mr. Maulidi, a Jakarta-based contractor hired by USAID, and his crew face a Sisyphean task trying to keep the road passable by shoveling dirt and gravel, or laying tarmac. As fast as they make repairs, the road buckles under the weight of flatbed trucks carrying cement, pipes, and tin roofs to rebuild stricken coastal communities.

On a recent morning, he took his crew out to the fields to cut dozens of yard-long sticks. With the sticks they mark the route through a section of road in Leupung flooded by an overnight storm.

A group of motorcyclists wait on dry land eyeing the knee-high water with trepidation. "Whenever it rains, it floods here," sighs Salamudin, a fisherman who lost his boat and house to the tsunami.

The motorcyclists were on their way to a nonprofit-run workshop on micro-credit loans, hoping to find alternatives to aid handouts. The flooding was a reminder of how much stands in their way, and how fragile Aceh's economic recovery will be as long its infrastructure lies in ruins.

The scenic drive to Lamno used to take one and a half hours. These days, it's closer to three hours, says Zamhari, a truck driver from Banda Aceh. "The road is getting worse and this section is really bad," he says, gesturing at the flooded road.

The tsunami hasn't just upped truck traffic on the highway. It's also rewritten Aceh's topography, forcing road builders to retreat from a coastline propelled inland by tectonic forces. Sections of road that used to hug the shoreline now lie underwater and the mangled remains of bridges that once spanned rivers jut absurdly into the ocean.

USAID officials say they are finalizing the design of the new coastal road using land and soil surveys to decide where to build. An added complication: determining who owns the land. Aid workers say that the route taken by the new highway is likely to be a factor in deciding whether villages rebuild on their original land.

"Communities naturally want to go back to where they're from, but they also want to have access to the road. None of us know yet where that will be," says Reiko Nimni, a UN adviser in Jakarta.

In addition to roads, foreign donors are rebuilding ports in Aceh so that construction materials can travel by sea.

For Armaini, a member of Maulidi's crew, the work on the flooded portion of road brings back grim memories. His house used to lie 500 yards from the shore before the Dec. 26 tsunami that killed five members of his family. Now, the site lies under the floodwater that's holding up traffic, and the surf has crept 100 yards closer.

Still, he hasn't given up hope of returning. "I want to go home," he says.

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