Strengthening Disaster Preparedness in Banda Aceh, Indonesia

Andrys Erawan, Asami Okahashi, Yang Zhang

Indonesia is one of the most earthquake-impacted countries in the world. On 26 December 2004, an undersea earthquake with a magnitude of 9.1 Mw triggered a devastating tsunami across the Indian Ocean, causing the death of over 200,000 Indonesians and huge economic loss. Nowadays, many Indonesian cities, threatened by earthquake and tsunami risks, are still struggling with disaster prevention strategies.

In partnership with the Government of Japan who has extensive experiences and expertise in disaster preparedness, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) initiated a regional project “Matching Platform for Cities and the Private Sector” offering a structured process for cities, private sector, and other diverse stakeholders to come together to address pressing urban challenges and enhance participatory city planning. With the leadership of Banda Aceh Development Planning Agency (Bappeda Kota Banda Aceh) and City Disaster Management Agency  (BPBD), Syiah Kuala University (Unsyiah), Tohoku University, and UNDP supported the city of Banda Aceh to further strengthen disaster preparedness in a participatory manner. 

Disaster preparedness in Banda Aceh

The city of Banda Aceh is located on the northwestern tip of Indonesia, with a population of around 268,000 people. As the closest major Indonesian city to the 2004 earthquake epicenter, Banda Aceh suffered the most severe casualties, with about 167,000 people perishing in no time. Merciless waves caused extreme destruction to the northwestern side of the city, sweeping away the homes of thousands of innocent citizens. In Aceh Province alone, the tsunami and its aftermath led to US$4.5 billion cost of damage (International Disaster Database, University of Louvain), which was almost equivalent to the province’s GDP in the previous year (Nazara and Resusudarmo 2007).

According to the survivors, many of them were taken by surprise, as there were no tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean monitoring for tsunamis and issuing warnings to the general population living around the ocean (Australian Geographics, 2015). A small number of people recognized the early signs of the tsunami and evacuated from the beach (e.g., the "Smong" local wisdom in Simeuleu help some people evacuate to high ground). The rest who stayed in the coastal area had little time to escape when they noticed the “wall of water”.

“We had never seen anything like this before because we didn’t know what a tsunami was at that time. Everyone tried to save themselves. We were dragged by the strong current, and I swallowed some muddy water.” said Ms. Pater, a tsunami survivor from Banda Aceh. In 2004, people like Ms. Pater were caught underprepared due to the lack of tsunami preparedness. After the disaster, an expansive tsunami response programme was initiated. 

Nowadays, the following means: 1) tsunami siren towers, placed around Banda Aceh, which alert the citizens when the beacons in the sea register an over 7 Mw magnitude earthquake; 2) structurally reinforced escape towers which serve as evacuation centers during disasters; 3) widened coastal road equipped with escape route signs were deployed to enable fast evacuation. Unsyiah has become a training hub for risk reduction and disaster response offering students relevant courses, including a Master’s programme in Disaster Management launched with help of UNDP in the framework of the Making Aceh Safer through Disaster Risk Reduction in Development (DRR-A) Project during the period from 2008 to 2011. Moreover, DRR-A assisted the Aceh Province Government and 10 districts in Aceh Province in establishing a conducive environment for risk reduction mainstreaming in every aspect, including public awareness, teaching materials on disaster risk reduction, disaster drills, establishment of the Disaster Risk Reduction Forum (DRR Forum), and so forth.

However, it is still challenging for the city to engage all citizens in the emergency system. When two other earthquakes hit Bireuen and Pidie Jaya districts of the province in 2013 and 2016 respectively, people instinctively ran jamming the streets with vehicles and creating chaos. People living outside the urban area faced an information gap in the emergency evacuation system (Gabriel Domínguez, 2014). How can the city of Banda Aceh further strengthen its disaster preparedness to leave no one behind?

In 2018, the Mayor of Banda Aceh, Bappeda, BPBD, and other stakeholders gathered to discuss potential disaster risks of the city. After interviewing local citizens and visiting tsunami-hit sites, the project team quickly realized that the current level of disaster preparedness and awareness had room to grow. The city needed to take a participatory and innovative approach to tackles these issues in order to avoid tragedies from happening again.

Innovation for inclusive city planning 

Aiming at raising awareness of disaster preparedness among a wide range of local stakeholders, a design thinking workshop was organized in 2018 to bring together representatives of local government, civil societies, private sector, academia, and international experts to work towards designing potential solutions for increasing disaster preparedness and awareness. Over 110 participants expressed the need for enhancing disaster education, early warning and information systems, which led to the identification of 10 different solutions such as increasing information availability through the promotion of an evacuation mobile app, improving social involvement, reassessing local capacity, etc.

“We need to make Banda Aceh more resilient and sustainable by using smart solutions,” said a participant of the workshop. General citizens put their ideas on paper together with a wide range of local stakeholders. 

Digital inclusion

Research revealed that even though the internet penetration rate in Indonesia has grown by 29 percent in the past decade, a huge gender gap with many Indonesian women not knowing how to effectively use digital media or the Internet still exists (Fiona, 2017). Even with digital solutions being developed by the private sector, not everyone would be able to benefit from them due to limited internet access, internet literacy in some cities and lack of smartphones.

The Government of Banda Aceh took an initiative to develop a new Resilient City Action Plan ensuring that all citizens will be able to benefit from the digital technologies, which ultimately strengthen disaster preparedness. To identify the reasons obstructing access to technologies faced by different social groups (i.e., elderly, people with disabilities, women), with the support of Unsyiah a survey was conducted among 250 respondents (45 and 55 percent of whom were women and men respectively) and covered 8 sub-districts. Based on the results, the city organized capacity-building trainings for the vulnerable groups. The Mayor of Banda Aceh, Mr. Aminullah Usman, acknowledged the significance of the results and expressed his appreciation of the efforts. (For more details, please click here.)

The Government is now committed to providing full coverage of the Internet in the city by 2023 to have an infrastructure in place letting citizens use the digital solutions helping to reduce the damage from natural disasters in the near future. 

Way forward

After careful consideration of local needs and urgency, the government, local stakeholders, two private companies with extensive expertise in the area of disaster prevention, namely Fujitsu and SAP, as well as UNDP identified two main directions for further improvement. The city will be working together with the aforementioned parties on promotion of e-education and utilization of an evacuation mobile app. We hope for the delivery of disaster prevention apps by Fujitsu and SAP soon, and we wish the apps could be implemented on mobile phones distributed by Unsyiah to local vulnerable groups. 

We are certain that Banda Aceh’s efforts aiming at strengthening disaster preparedness will be successful and hope that they encourage others to work towards more resilient, inclusive, and sustainable cities.

For more information:

Focal points: 

Andrys Erawan (UNDP Indonesia):

Asami Okahashi (UNDP Bargkok Regiona Hub):