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One Year After the Tsunami: Building Back the Right Way

One year after the Southeast Asian tsunami, reconstruction is finally under way. But some of the hardest hit areas risk sowing the seeds of future disasters unless donor countries include sustainably sourced building materials in their long-term aid packages, according to experts from the World Wildlife Fund.

In Indonesia's Aceh province, for instance, officials estimate that at least 860,000 cubic meters of sawn timber will be needed for the construction of 200,000 homes over the next five years. With Indonesia's forests already being logged three times faster than they can regenerate, only a small fraction of this additional demand can be met locally without resorting to illegal logging that would decimate Sumatra's biologically outstanding rain forests, home to Sumatran tigers, orangutans and other threatened species.

"Our hopes of building back better really depend now on bridging this gap with imported timber," said Carter S. Roberts, president and CEO of WWF-US. "Without responsibly sourced timber from the outside, the rain forests of Sumatra will face almost certain destruction from illegal logging. Meeting human needs must be the first priority, but the destruction of the rain forests would be a tragedy for both people and conservation."

WWF is partnering in the United States with the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) and Conservation International to send responsibly sourced timber to Aceh. Two pilot shipments have already been sent, with contributions from Boise Cascade, Potlatch and Louisiana Pacific timber companies. Other countries in WWF's global conservation network also are contributing to the effort, which represents one of the first practical applications of the Green Reconstruction Guidelines developed by WWF and endorsed by Indonesian reconstruction authorities.

Developed for Aceh but applicable to other tsunami-hit areas and countries, the guidelines provide a blueprint for an integrated reconstruction plan combining the use of responsibly sourced building materials with the creation of sustainably managed fishery, agriculture and aquaculture industries.

Poor planning in the past has been responsible for a cascade of "mini-tsunamis" - flash floods and mudslides down deforested slopes that have claimed hundreds of lives and left thousands homeless in Aceh over the past several years. If reconstruction now follows the same unguided path, it could end up doing as much or more long-term environmental damage than the tsunami itself did.

"Really building back better means enhancing the prospects for regional prosperity and security, both of which depend on a healthy environment, not one that has been further degraded by poor planning, however well-intentioned. We need long-term solutions, not quick fixes," said Ralph Ashton, WWF's Global Tsunami Response Coordinator.

In the year since the tsunami struck, WWF has been working to assess the environmental damage, rehabilitate natural coastal defenses such as coral reefs and mangroves and provide environmental advice to NGOs, government agencies and former President Clinton's UN tsunami recovery office. WWF is also developing a plan to introduce state-of-the-art aquaculture techniques to shrimp farms in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

WWF has forged close working field relationships with groups such as Catholic Relief Services and World Vision and in the coming months will be partnering with the American Red Cross as environmental advisor for its multi-million dollar tsunami reconstruction effort.

"We come at this from an environmental perspective, but clearly it's about more than that," said Roberts. "Helping the people of Southeast Asia to rebuild their shattered lives and establish sustainable livelihoods goes hand-in-glove with our conservation goals. It's about giving people the incentive to work for conservation by getting conservation to work for them."

A background brief on WWF's tsunami work and photographs showing containers of wood being shipped to Aceh for reconstruction. (PDF 340K)