News - December 1, 2011

Legend saves lives during tsunami

Who: Thomas van Rossum, Regional Development and Innovation (VHL)
What: Research internship on risk reduction during disasters
Where: Simeulue Island and Banda Aceh, Indonesia
Why: To learn more about Disaster Risk Reduction in practice

Gas vapours, dirt and total traffic chaos - that is what surrounds me on my daily bike ride to the office. Not many people cycle here, everyone goes around on mopeds, but I think they have a good laugh about the crazy white man on his bike. I live with a host family and that's given me an Indonesian family. A busy bunch, but very friendly. Through living with them I learn a lot about Indonesian culture, the food and the customs. But I can also give a lot back. For example I teach the children English, the whole family has swimming lessons, and I'm teaching the mother to ride a bike.
I'm doing my internship with the NGO company that set up Disaster Risk reduction projects after the tsunami in 2004. I look at projects both on Simeulue Island and on Banda Aceh. I picked these two places for the different effects of the tsunami. Because although Simuelue Island lay much closer to the epicentre of the quake, there were far fewer victims there. This has a lot to do with a tsunami which struck the island more than 100 years ago. After that a legend grew up that said you should flee into the mountains if the sea draws back. And that legend saved thousands of human lives. In Banda Aceh, there was no history of tsunamis, which meant people were not prepared and many people died. I think it's great that somewhere where there is no money for an expensive alarm or security system, a legend can save lives.
In the course of my daily life I have a lot of contact with the local population. That's very nice, but I should perhaps have been a little more cautious with some of the customs. In my first few days in Indonesia I was served snake meat, turtle eggs and a local brew, and I was sick for two weeks. It is gradually getting better now, but I still have to watch out with spicy food.