The Indian Ocean Tsunami hit on Boxing Day, December 26, 2004, with waves up to thirty meters high, inundating coastal communities in Aceh, Thailand, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Tamil Nadu in India. Almost 250,000 people died immediately. Millions became homeless. It was one of the deadliest natural catastrophes in history. A flow of donations was triggered, mostly due to the high media visibility, (many tourists were affected on Thailand’s beaches), and the huge geographic perimeter of the affected regions. With donations of 13 billion US dollars in aid money and materials, it also became the best funded disaster recovery effort in history.
While international attention has long since faded, shifting to more recent calamities, post-tsunami challenges continue to have an impact on affected communities. Six years later and just weeks before the Sendai earthquake and tsunami (which caused the nuclear disaster in Fukushima), the artists Christoph Draeger and Heidrun Holzfeind went on a three-month trip to the five countries most affected to shoot a documentary investigating the current state of architecture built in the aftermath of the tsunami. While documenting the long-term effects of the disaster through conversations with survivors, eyewitnesses, aid workers and rescue personnel, they looked at what has been achieved, what went wrong and what problems still remain.
Their 60-minute film questions how the flood of aid money has transformed the affected regions, and how this process has rebuilt local economies and reshaped communities. How does collective and individual memory work, years after such a media mega-event? How has housing built after the tsunami been able to respond to the individual needs of affected people? How were communities able to participate in the recovery process? How have these new dwellings been adapted over time by their inhabitants, and how did architectural interventions alter societal and communal structures?
Quite often the artists found housing designs that were culturally insensitive, or simply substandard, due also to embezzlement of funds by local contractors. Kitchenettes inside the houses were unusable for people who traditionally cook on open fires; inside toilets were rejected as “gross.” Well-meant efforts have created a so-called “dependency syndrome” in which people keep demanding outside assistance instead of becoming actively involved in improving their situation.
But in some cases locals were integrated in the reconstruction efforts and empowered to organize themselves to rebuild their livelihoods—an “owner-driven” as opposed to “donor-driven” approach. By and large this has yielded better results and less complaints. In these cases, affected communities were able to upgrade their living situation through the newly built housing, and the motto,“Build Back Better,” proclaimed by the international community became, although modestly, a reality.
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