The death toll from the 6.5-magnitude earthquake that struck Indonesia's Aceh region last week has passed 100, while another 84,000 people have been rendered homeless. Among those affected are 30,000 children whose schools are closed. Thousands are surviving in makeshift shelters and, as always in situations where populations face massive and unexpected displacement, food and water are running scarce. There is also the threat of disease outbreaks. That the quake should have come in the midst of the South-east Asian monsoon complicates matters for relief workers.
An area of great natural beauty located in the Indonesian archipelago's western-most point, Aceh is rocked by tremors with frightening regularity. It became a byword for calamity when, 12 years ago this month, a tsunami caused by an undersea quake devastated the place. Some 170,000 Indonesians died or went missing in the tidal waves, the largest casualties among the 230,000 lives that were lost across South-east Asia and South Asia. The deadly waves also had some unexpected effects. GAM, the Free Aceh Movement, ended a three-decades-long uprising to seal a peace deal.
The 2004 disaster is worth recounting here because the lessons from it are even more important today. Former US president Bill Clinton, who was appointed UN Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery in its aftermath, gave the world the concept of "building back better" - a new kind of bounce- back that seeks to not only restore what existed previously but also seize the moral, political, managerial and financial opportunities a crisis offers to set communities on a more secure development path.
South-east Asian defence ministers, recognising that militaries are often the best placed to provide speedy disaster relief, already have a coordination centre in place in Singapore. While that is undoubtedly useful in emergency situations, building back better requires a whole-of-government approach that pools knowledge from across the world. It is not for nothing that the Japanese, also frequent victims of earthquakes, have succeeded not only in designing buildings that can withstand massive tremors, but also in persuading people to adapt social behaviour to aid not just their own escape but that of neighbours as well.
Building back better is especially vital for Aceh. The deeply religious region is the place where Islam is thought to have entered Indonesia. Indeed, many Acehnese regarded the misfortune from the tsunami as divine punishment for their lack of piety. All the more important then that Jakarta, even as it hastens to get Aceh back on its feet, should consider rebuilding schools a top priority. Any descent into fatalism must be stopped. That is why the Bedouins taught their young to trust in God but to also remember to tie their camels.