Original Paper

Natural Hazards

, Volume 47, Issue 1, pp 17-38

First online:

Ethnic groups’ response to the 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia

  • Jean-Christophe GaillardAffiliated withUMR 5194 Pacte – CNRS, Université de Grenoble Email author 
  • , Elsa ClavéAffiliated withLaboratoire Archipel – UMR 8170 Centre Asie du Sud-Est – CNRS, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales
  • , Océane VibertAffiliated withThe Global Disaster Information Network
  • , AzhariAffiliated withTikar Pandan, Jl. Salihin, Komp. BTN Lam Geulumpang
  • , DediAffiliated withTikar Pandan, Jl. Salihin, Komp. BTN Lam Geulumpang
  • , Jean-Charles DenainAffiliated withLaboratoire Gester – EA 3766, Université Paul Valery – Montpellier III
  • , Yusuf EfendiAffiliated withSekolah Tinggi Keguruan dan Ilmu Pendidikan Hamzanwadi
  • , Delphine GrancherAffiliated withLaboratoire de Géographie Physique, UMR 8591 CNRS
  • , Catherine C. LiamzonAffiliated withDepartment of Geography, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines, Diliman Campus
    • , Desy Rosnita SariAffiliated withJurusan Teknik Arsitektur, Fakultas Teknik, Universitas Gadjah Mada
    • , Ryo SetiawanAffiliated withJurusan Teknik Arsitektur, Fakultas Teknik, Universitas Gadjah Mada

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The 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami unfairly hit the different ethnic groups of Aceh, Indonesia. About 170,000 Acehnese and Minangkabau people died in the Northern tip of Sumatra while only 44 Simeulue people passed away in the neighbouring Simeulue island located near the earthquake epicentre. Such a difference in the death toll does not lie in the nature of the hazard but in different human behaviours and ethnic contexts. The present study draws on a contextual framework of analysis where people’s behaviour in the face of natural hazards is deeply influenced by the cultural, social, economic and political context. Questionnaire-based surveys among affected communities, key informant interviews and literature reviews show that the people of Simeulue detected the tsunami very early and then escaped to the mountains. On the other hand, Acehnese and Minangkabau people, respectively in the cities of Banda Aceh and Meulaboh, did not anticipate the phenomenon and were thus caught by the waves. The different behaviours of the victims have been commanded by the existence or the absence of a disaster subculture among affected communities as well as by their capacity to protect themselves in facing the tsunami. People’s behaviours and the capacity to protect oneself can be further tracked down to a deep tangle of intricate factors which include the armed conflict that has been affecting the province since the 1970s, the historical and cultural heritage and the national political economy system. This paper finally argues that the uneven impact of the 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Aceh lies in the different daily life conditions of the ethnic groups struck by the disaster.


Earthquake Tsunami People’s response Ethnic groups Disaster subculture Structural constraints Aceh Indonesia