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In tsunami-affected countries, governments and individuals stay focused on the future

An unprecedented $13.6 billion in aid has boosted rebuilding, but political and economic challenges remain three years later.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 26, 2007



BANGKOK, THAILAND

Three years ago, a towering wave swept aside the flimsy home of A. Muttama in Nagapattinam, India, and stole away her three children. Together with her husband, Selvaraj, a fisherman, she turned her back on the sea. After two years in shelter, they moved to Madras, where he found work as a rickshaw driver.

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The memory of that day still brings tears to Ms. Muttama's eyes, but the horror of the past is yielding to thoughts of a better tomorrow. "The wounds were deep, but life doesn't stop for anyone," she says.

Across the Indian Ocean, where a Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami scoured coastal communities and displaced 2 million people in 12 countries, an unprecedented aid effort has repaired much of the physical damage. The world dug deep into its pockets and pledged $13.6 billion for the survivors of a disaster that claimed 230,000 lives. That money has fed, housed, and employed the afflicted, while governments and humanitarian agencies focused on rebuilding schools, houses, and hospitals and restoring shattered ports and waterlogged farms.

Some countries have moved forward: Resorts in Thailand are packed this season with foreign tourists seeking winter sunshine. Several low-key ceremonies to remember the dead will be held there today. In the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where Muttama lives, more than 1,800 self-help groups have sprung up to grant small loans to survivors and give them better access to jobs, education, and healthcare, in some cases for the first time among underprivileged groups.

Other nations have grappled with tensions that predated the tsunami and became woven into the recovery effort. Insurgents in Aceh, the Indonesian province at the tip of Sumatra Island, signed a landmark peace deal and were elected to office. Sri Lanka saw its olive branch wither as fighting with ethnic-Tamil rebels escalated, hampering reconstruction projects.

For survivors, it's been a long road. But massive aid has mostly reached its target, defying skeptics who foresaw roadblocks to delivering services to marginalized communities in graft-ridden developing nations.

The next major challenge, say aid workers and government officials, is to avoid a hard landing as the reconstruction winds down. The fear is that economies fueled by aid dollars will deflate after international agencies pack up. Indonesian officials have warned of mass layoffs in Aceh in 2009 when BRR, the donor-funded national reconstruction agency, is due to close. A government survey found that at least 40,000 may be left jobless by the drawdown in foreign aid.

"A lot has been rebuilt, but what will happen when all the money has gone?" asks Yusuf Irwan, a self-employed mechanic in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital and aid hub.

Another challenge is preparing coastal communities for possible future natural disasters. A UN-led multidonor effort has begun to install tsunami warning systems in the Indian Ocean, similar to those used in the Pacific Ocean. These include undersea sensors and buoys linked to national centers that can issue warnings and share data with other countries.

Had a warning system existed in 2004, authorities would have had time to evacuate coastal areas. Today, countries are better prepared to cope with a tsunami, says Orestes Anastasia, a project manager for USAID, which supports the UN initiative.

That was borne out by a deadly Sept. 24 earthquake in West Sumatra that damaged thousands of homes and triggered a small tsunami. Indonesian authorities issued a tsunami warning within five minutes of the 8.4-magnitude quake, allowing coastal villages to respond ahead of the waves.

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