A New Blueprint: Fusing Cultural Preservation with Disaster Relief

Result | 31 May 2009

For 6 months after the earthquake, there were no homes, almost no food, and many aftershocks that left residents fearful

When one of the most powerful earthquakes of the past century rocked the Indonesian island of Nias in March 2005, Maeli Dakhi was initially relieved that he and his family had survived.

The earthquake destroyed 127,000 houses, displacing more than 400,000 people, and caused an estimated $1.4 billion in damages. Among the thousands of damaged homes was Mr. Maeli's traditional wooden omo house, along with most of those in his native village of Bawogosali. His family was forced to live in a makeshift tent for more than 6 months.

Bawogosali was a remote, isolated village even before the earthquake struck. The quake cut off the village's supply lines, and with no available means of selling or buying goods, Mr. Maeli's family could not longer afford to eat properly.

"We ate anything we could find - like unripe bananas," he says. "We almost never had meat."

No Homes, No Food

"Those first 6 months were hard," he says. "No home, almost no food, and there were lots of tremors, which made everyone afraid."

Mr. Maeli and his neighbors also worried whether they would ever be able to return to their beautiful, traditional homes again.

Traditional stilted row houses are a distinguishing feature of southern Nias villages. Their steep roofs and V-shaped columns give homes the look of large ships' bows. The houses are built side-by-side along a single cobblestone walkway that forms the heart of every village.

"Our home has a special value for us that we want to protect," says Mr. Maeli. "Each part of the home has a special purpose."

Under the Earthquake and Tsunami Emergency Support Project, ADB engaged renowned Indonesian architect Johan Silas to lead its housing reconstruction effort in Nias. Instead of focusing relief efforts on more easily accessible areas of the island, ADB's exploratory team identified some of the most isolated and worst-affected villages through satellite imagery, then visited several remote communities, making the final leg of the trip on foot over rugged terrain.

"We weren't just focused on rebuilding homes, but on preserving communities and helping to maintain these ancient villages' culture," says Mr. Silas.

With many villages nestled miles away from the nearest country road, the lack of access presented a major challenge for reconstruction efforts.

"We wondered if we could really pull this off, but the people said, 'Yes, we can do it, just give us the resources and we'll do the rest,'" says Mr. Silas. "And they did."

The first step of the reconstruction process was taking time to meet with affected families to ensure that assistance was specifically tailored to each village's needs. Based on this community input, ADB made community contracting a major cornerstone of its reconstruction effort in Nias.

"These families had built their own houses, and knew how to do most of the repairs," says Mr. Silas. "The main thing they lacked was resources, and that's where we came in."

ADB provided $73 million to support the construction and repair of over 7,000 homes in Nias and nearby Aceh, which was devastated by the 2004 tsunami. In Nias, 700 traditional omo homes are in the final stages of reconstruction.

"ADB has assumed a leading role in preserving Nias's rich architectural heritage by supporting the reconstruction of traditional omo houses," says Pieter Smidt, head of ADB's Extended Mission in Sumatera. "It is a unique feature of our reconstruction program in Aceh and Nias."

Merging Modernity with Tradition

"We have ensured that the rehabilitated homes retain their traditional character, while allowing some modifications, like modern roofing materials and earthquakeproofing measures, to enhance the safety and livability of the houses," says Mr. Silas.

"We didn't want to only return these villages to their previous state, but rather add something new to help bring them forward," explains Mr. Silas. "We've helped preserve their heritage, but with a forwardlooking perspective."

By fusing cultural preservation with disaster relief, ADB was able to provide needed assistance while protecting Nias's irreplaceable cultural treasures.

"By keeping my home I'm keeping my promise to my forefathers," Mr. Maeli says. "It shows them our gratitude."

"Just as my parents asked me to preserve our traditional home, I also ask my children to do so. This home is my children's inheritance, and preserving it gives me confidence that they will preserve our traditions."

Life for Mr. Maeli and his family is still far from easy. His wife and son still toil in the tropical heat each day tapping rubber trees, and the family still ekes out a humble existence, especially as the global price of rubber continues to fall.

Despite these ongoing challenges, Mr. Maeli says he feels content. "At least now we don't have to worry about where we live, and can focus on making a living."