Natural Hazards

, Volume 47, Issue 1, pp 17–38

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

Authors

    • UMR 5194 Pacte – CNRSUniversité de Grenoble
  • Elsa Clavé
    • Laboratoire Archipel – UMR 8170 Centre Asie du Sud-Est – CNRSEcole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales
  • Océane Vibert
    • The Global Disaster Information Network
  • Azhari
    • Tikar Pandan, Jl. Salihin, Komp. BTN Lam Geulumpang
  • Dedi
    • Tikar Pandan, Jl. Salihin, Komp. BTN Lam Geulumpang
  • Jean-Charles Denain
    • Laboratoire Gester – EA 3766Université Paul Valery – Montpellier III
  • Yusuf Efendi
    • Sekolah Tinggi Keguruan dan Ilmu Pendidikan Hamzanwadi
  • Delphine Grancher
    • Laboratoire de Géographie PhysiqueUMR 8591 CNRS
  • Catherine C. Liamzon
    • Department of Geography, College of Social Sciences and PhilosophyUniversity of the Philippines, Diliman Campus
  • Desy Rosnita Sari
    • Jurusan Teknik Arsitektur, Fakultas TeknikUniversitas Gadjah Mada
  • Ryo Setiawan
    • Jurusan Teknik Arsitektur, Fakultas TeknikUniversitas Gadjah Mada
Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s11069-007-9193-3

Cite this article as:
Gaillard, J., Clavé, E., Vibert, O. et al. Nat Hazards (2008) 47: 17. doi:10.1007/s11069-007-9193-3
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Abstract

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.

Keywords

EarthquakeTsunamiPeople’s responseEthnic groupsDisaster subcultureStructural constraintsAcehIndonesia

1 Introduction

The 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami wrought immense damage among communities surrounding the Indian Ocean. The Indonesian province of Aceh (formally known as Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam, NAD), at the northernmost tip of Sumatra was the hardest hit with more than 165,000 people left dead according to the Indonesian government’s disaster agency (Rofi et al. 2006). Less known is that the neighbouring island of Simeulue, located in the immediate vicinity of the earthquake epicentre and struck by the tsunami too, only suffered 44 deaths and one missing person (Satkorlak 2005).

Three main scientific paradigms encompass the way people respond to natural hazards like earthquakes and tsunamis. The first paradigm, known as agent-specific, consider that people’s behaviour in facing nature’s threats depend on the kind of phenomenon involved (Baum et al. 1983). The sudden, rare and extreme dimension of natural hazards are therefore of critical importance in understanding the response of individuals. This viewpoint in disaster management, largely influenced by the earth sciences, has been challenged with the increasing interest of social sciences in hazard and disaster studies.

The second paradigm, originating from the social sciences, is called agent-generic and suggest that people’s behaviour do not differ according to the type of natural hazard (Quarantelli 1991). This approach has long dominated the literature and gained huge momentum among institutions in charge of disaster management. The proponents of the agent-generic paradigm have been successful in debunking a number of myths (panic, passivity, anti-sociality, trauma, self-centred focus), which were then widespread among policy makers (Quarantelli and Dynes 1972). As an alternative, Quarantelli (1991) suggests eight factors influencing people’s response in the face of natural hazards: the relative proportion of the population involved, the social centrality of the affected population, the length of time the affected population is involved, the rapidity of involvement by the population, the predictability of involvement, the unfamiliarity of the crisis, the depth of the population involvement and the recurrence of involvement. This approach thus considers that people’s response chiefly depends on the intrinsic characteristics of the community and not much on external constraints.

On the other hand, the third approach is contextual and emphasizes that people’s behaviour in facing natural hazards is largely dependent on the cultural, social, economic and political environment (Wenger 1978; Mitchell et al. 1989; Wisner 2004). This approach largely emanates from the radical paradigm that challenged the dominant way hazards and disasters were addressed up to the mid-1970s. It particularly contests the role of nature’s extremes in the occurrence of disasters (O’Keefe et al. 1976; Waddell 1977; Hewitt 1983). The contextual approach underlines structural and everyday constraints that accentuate people’s vulnerability and compel individual’s behaviour in the face of natural hazards (Wisner et al. 2004). These constraints are cultural (traditions, religion), social (demography, health, discrimination), economic (access to resources, poverty) and political (social protection, type of government). Turner et al. (2003) further lay stress on the importance of the local physical environment and its interaction with the social system.

However, the contextual approach largely failed to address how people’s response to natural hazards varies within ethnically diverse environments. This is particularly true in developing countries, which yet display the greatest ethnic diversity. Due to increasing international migrations, ethnic diversity in industrialized countries is rising too. These trends imply the importance of conducting studies in a varied ethnic environment. The present study aims to contribute to filling this gap by addressing the factors behind the differentiated response of Aceh’s ethnic groups in facing the 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami. The first section will review previous studies of ethnic responses to natural hazards. Section 2 will consist in an overview of the tsunami disaster in Aceh. Section 3 will present the research methodology. Section 4 will show how Aceh ethnic groups differently responded to the earthquake and tsunami. Section 5 will look into the social and cultural features of the communities to explain these dissimilar responses. Section 6 will finally relate people’s behaviour to structural constraints.

2 Differences among ethnic groups’ response to natural hazards

Differences between ethnic groups’ response to natural hazards have been stressed at different stages of disaster management (Bolin and Bolton 1986; Drabek 1986; Perry and Mushkatel 1986; Perry 1987; Peacock et al.1997; Fothergill et al. 1999; Bolin 2006). Perry (1987), Vaughan and Nordenstam (1991), Vaughan (1995), Blanchard-Boehm (1997), Mileti and Darlington (1997) and Peguero (2006) underscore that ethnic groups living in the USA do not display similar perceptions of risks and are not similarly receptive to information dealing with seismic or cyclonic hazards. Still in USA, some studies show that some ethnic groups are more reluctant to evacuate in the event of a cyclone (Gladwin and Peacock 1997; Cosel and Leffel 1998–2000) or flooding (Drabek and Boggs 1968; Perry et al.1982; Perry and Mushkatel 1984, 1986; Perry 1987; Perry and Lindell 1991; Drabek 1999). How people psychologically suffer from the impact of natural hazards and how they cope with it also vary among neighbouring ethnic groups (Drabek et al. 1975; Bolin 1986; Bolin and Bolton 1986; Perry and Mushkatel 1986; Kaniasty and Norris 2000; Norris et al.1999, 2001a, b; Perilla et al.2002; Ibañez et al. 2003; Flett et al. 2004; Muñiz 2006). Bolin and Bolton (1986) also show that different ethnic groups do not have the same range of choices and access to help and support networks in the event of a crisis. Perry (1987) notices that different languages and different degrees of confidence in the authorities are critical issues of effective crisis management. Ethnicity finally impacts the capacity of victims to adjust to evacuation centres and temporary shelters (Kutak 1938; Yelvington 1997).

Such differences in the way ethnic groups respond to natural hazards have significant implications on the impacts of those phenomena. Bolin and Bolton (Bolin 1986; Bolin and Bolton 1986) and Moore (1958) show that tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes do not similarly impact on black, white, Asian and Hispanic communities of the United States. Likewise, Dash et al. (1997) point out that black communities living in the vicinity of Miami have been more deeply affected than white communities following the onslaught of Hurricane Andrew in August 1992. More recently, black communities were the most severely hit by hurricane Katrina that struck New Orleans late in August 2005 (Austin and Miles 2006; Bobo and Dawson 2006; Center for Social Inclusion 2006). The capacity to recover following disaster partially depends on access to insurance which is unequal among ethnic groups as shown in the Hurricane Andrew case (Peacock and Girard 1997). Such differences in the capacity of people to face the occurrence of natural hazards usually refer to dissimilar levels of vulnerability. Vulnerability then refers to the geographical, cultural, social, economic and political marginalization of some ethnic communities (Wisner 1993; Cannon 1994; Cutter et al. 2003; Wisner et al.2004; Bolin 2006). Thus ethnic groups’ response to natural hazards cannot be considered outside their particular geographical, social, economic and political context.

There are also significant differences between the way ethnic groups cope with the post-disaster reconstruction stage. Following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Bowden et al. (1977) note that some ethnic groups were more open to the idea of relocation than others. Similarly, Girard and Peacock (1997) underscore that, subsequent to Hurricane Andrew that devastated Florida in 1992, white communities were more eager to be relocated than black people who feared to be further segregated and eventually to lose their standard of living. Unequal incomes between Hispanic and Anglo-American communities greatly affected the capacity of the victims to afford a permanent resettlement solution following the 1983 Coalinga earthquake (Bolin and Bolton 1986; Bolin 1994). Culture and ethnicity are also of great importance in the way victims adjust or not to the sites chosen by the authorities for resettlement (Oliver-Smith 1994). After the 1963 Skopje earthquake, Davis (1977) indicates that most of the Macedonian victims relocated in other regions of the former Yugoslavia went back to their native town less than 2 months after their resettlement because their children could not speak the local language. Similarly, the uniform resettlement programme set up by the Philippine government following the 1991 eruption of Mt Pinatubo and subsequent lahars did not fit all ethnic groups affected by the disaster (Gaillard 2002).

Most of the research works quoted in the foregoing paragraphs deal with the United States. Very few studies addressed ethnic groups’ different responses to natural hazards in “developing” countries. Yet, the ethnic diversity of these countries turns out to be a very important issue in disaster management. The range of behaviours observed in the face of the 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Aceh is a significant example.

3 The 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami and the people of Aceh

The 26 December 2004 disaster was not the first to strike Aceh in the last 100 years. The EMDAT database of the Centre for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters (2006) lists nine disastrous events linked to earthquakes (and lingering tsunamis) and flooding episodes between 1900 and 2002 (Table 1). Each event killed at least ten people, disrupted the life of more than 100 individuals, or required international aid. However, except for the 1907 earthquake which hit the island of Simeulue and which probably killed more than 1,800 people, other disasters caused limited damage and few human casualties. The December 2004 disaster is of much greater scope.
Table 1

Disasters associated with natural phenomena in Aceh between 1900 and 2004 (after data from the Centre for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters, 2006)

Date

Natural hazard

Number of people killed or missing

Number of people affected

Economic losses (106 US$)

4 January 1907

Earthquake and tsunami (magnitude 7.1 or 7.6?)

Between 400 and 1,800

23 August 1936

Earthquake (magnitude 7.3)

9

20

17 December 1978

Floods

8

66,600

3 April 1983

Earthquake (magnitude 6.8)

0

100

1

November 1987

Floods

4

2,000

3 January 1996

Floods

21 (Aceh and Jakarta)

60,000 (Aceh and Jakarta)

130

25 November 2000

Floods

100 (Aceh, Riau, Jambi)

394,000 (Aceh, Riau, Jambi)

40

2 November 2002

Earthquake (magnitude 7.4)

3

60

19 November 2002

Floods

13

87,000

1.6

On 26 December 2004 at 7:58 am local time, a huge moment magnitude 9.1 earthquake at 30 km depth occurred off the northwestern coast of Sumatra, near the small island of Simeulue (Lay et al. 2005). Within 30 min, a powerful tsunami hit the northwestern coast of Sumatra and caused tremendous damage (Fig. 1). The series of up-to-30 m-high waves battered 2,500 villages located along an 800 km coastal stretch (International Organization for Migration and Departemen Pekerjaan Umum 2005). Early estimates of the death toll in Aceh reached 234,000 in February 2005 (Soesastro and Atje 2005). More recent and more realistic assessments set the number of people killed and missing following the tsunami between 165,700 according to the Bakornas, the governmental disaster management agency cited in Rofi et al. (2006), and 167,000 according to the Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi (BRR) the institution in charge of coordinating Aceh’s reconstruction (Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi et al. 2005). About 500,000 more individuals were rendered homeless in Aceh (Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi et al. 2005).
https://static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs11069-007-9193-3/MediaObjects/11069_2007_9193_Fig1_HTML.gif
Fig. 1

The province of Aceh and areas affected by the 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami

However, coastal communities are ethnically diverse and displayed significant differences in the way they responded to the earthquake and the tsunami. Furthermore, the biggest cities affected by the disaster, i.e., Banda Aceh and Meulaboh, are multi-cultural settlements. Significant differences characterize people’s response to the hazards. Therefore, the scope of the 26 December 2004 disaster cannot be fully considered outside of its ethnic dimension. It first requires an understanding of the multi-ethnic context in Aceh (Fig. 2). Among the dozen ethnic groups and sub-groups occupying the province of Aceh (Departemen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan 1980; Gordon 2005), three were severely affected by the 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami. The hardest hit areas are settled by Acehnese communities spread all over the province, Minangkabau people concentrated along the western coast of Sumatra, and Simeulue groups living along the shore of the neighbouring and eponymous island where the epicentre of the earthquake was located.
https://static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs11069-007-9193-3/MediaObjects/11069_2007_9193_Fig2_HTML.gif
Fig. 2

Spatial distribution of the main ethnic groups of Aceh and location of the study areas (after date from the Summer Institute of Linguistics)

Acehnese people make up 90% of the total population of Aceh. Despite significant inter-group differences across the province particularly in terms of dialect spoken, Acehnese communities affected by the tsunami are basically sea-oriented and depend on fishing and complementary agricultural and commercial activities. They boast a rich history with centuries of intense trade with European, Middle-Eastern and Far-Eastern commercial powers which opened up Acehnese communities and their vicinity to Indian, Arab, European, Persian and Chinese influences (Reid 2005, 2006). The Acehnese society is patrilineal and religion plays a very important role in social life (Loeb 1989). Aceh was indeed one of the very first areas to be Islamized in Eastern Asia during the 13th–14th century. Political life is today structured around the Dayah (Acehnese coranic school) and the Meunasah (mosque serving as community centre) with important traditional ceremonies during the year (peusijuek and khanduri) (Kassim 1985; Kartkasari and Yunus 1986–1987; Alamsyiah 1991).

Minangkabau communities, who form one of the largest ‘diasporas’ of the Indonesian archipelago, come from the region of Padang in Western Sumatra (Sufi 2004). The first waves of Minangkabau migrations to Aceh date back to the 18th century and the so-called “Padri war” which compelled a fraction of the population to leave. Most of the Minangkabau affected by the tsunami had however been migrating to the western coast of Aceh since the 1970s. The opening of the Medan-Meulaboh trans-Sumatra road in 2000 accelerated this trend. It opened the northwestern coast of Aceh to commercial activities which attracted Minangkabau businessmen (Fau 2003). At the time of the tsunami, they were living in close communities gathered at the centre of Meulaboh or along major roads. Field interviews show that Minangkabau communities are closely tied, with very active and strong support networks. Minangkabau people are Muslim but women play an important role in the household economy (Loeb 1989; Blackwood 2001).

Simeulue communities are exclusively concentrated along the shores of the eponymous island, while the mountainous hinterlands are very sparsely populated. The origin of Simeulue people is not clearly established but they might have come from neighbouring islands like Sumatra or Nias and from other parts of the Indonesian archipelago in precolonial times (Departemen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan 1980). Field interviews indicate that despite increasing contacts with Sumatran settlements, especially to trade cloves, Simeulue communities are largely self-sufficient. Major livelihoods include fishing and agriculture (rice, cloves and fruits), alternating according to the season (Yayasan Bhakti Wawasan Nusantara 1993). Islam missionaries only came to Simeulue during the 17th century but dayah and meunasah play the same significant social role as they do among Acehnese communities. Simeulue society is patrilineal as well (Loeb 1989).

4 Methodology and study area

The present study relies on a questionnaire-based survey conducted in the province of Aceh in February 2006. A 50-item questionnaire was used to assess people’s response to the 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami. Given the lack of reliable post-tsunami census data and other population counts, it was impracticable to rationally use any statistical sampling method. On another hand, there was no pre- or post-disaster aerial photograph available to rely on a credible geography-based sample. Therefore, 40 face-to-face interviews were conducted in each of the three study sites settled in by different ethnic groups. A total number of 120 people surveyed is enough to exceed the significance threshold of 100 interviewees for the whole population. About 40 respondents in each study site is also above the minimum subgroup size of 30 individuals (Berthier 2006). Table 2 shows demographic features of the surveyed population. Ages of inteviewees range from 16 to 75 years. The same approach was used in all three communities. The over-representation of males, especially among Acehnese and Minangkabau interviewees, is a consequence of the gender-differentiated impact of the tsunami (Oxfam International 2005). In order to evaluate and compare ethnic groups’ dissimilar responses, the same questionnaire was used over the three study sites. All interviews were conducted in Bahasa Indonesia, the Indonesian official language.
Table 2

Demographic features of the people surveyed by study area

 

Number of interviewees

Sex

Age

Male (%)

Female (%)

16–30 years old (%)

31–45 years old (%)

46+ years old (%)

Kajhu (Acehnese)

40

64

36

58

25

17

Air Pinang (Simeulue)

40

57

43

47

30

23

J. Pahlawan (Minangkabau)

40

66

34

37

29

34

About 40 interviews were first carried out in desa Kajhu, a village of Baitussalam sub-district located near the city of Banda Aceh and settled by Acehnese communities (Fig. 2). This site was selected on the basis of the high level of damage recorded. The whole municipality was indeed wiped out from the map by a series of waves reaching up to 7 m (Lavigne et al. 2006). Sea withdrawal preceded the tsunami. The village of Kajhu spread over 6 km2 and had a population of 4,506 people in 2003, or a population density of 751 people per km2. Most of the population was then engaged in service-oriented activities. Only 26% of the population relied on agriculture and fishing to make a living (Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam dan Nias 2006). Available post-tsunami data indicate the Kajhu’s population fell down to 2,776 inhabitants in 2005 or a decrease of 1,730 individuals. The number of households dropped from 1,276 in 2003 to 807 in 2005.

About 40 interviews were eventually conducted in desa Air Pinang (sub district of Simeulue Timur) located along the eastern shore of the island of Simeulue (Fig. 2). In 2003, 896 people from the Simeulue ethnic group were living in Air Pinang which land area is estimated at 38km2, or a density of 24 people per km2. About 90% of the people were living from fishing and cultivating rice and vegetables (Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam dan Nias 2006). Our interviews show that Air Pinang was submerged by a tsunami wave estimated between 3 and 5 m. This wave followed after the sea had receded. They totally damaged more than 100 fishing boats and most of the houses located along the shore were washed out. However, no deaths were reported. The 2005 Potensi Desa survey indicates that the population of Air Pinang grew up to 1,015 people in 2005, or an increase of 119 individuals due to natural growth. The number of households similarly increased from 182 in 2003 to 245 in 2005 (Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam dan Nias 2006).

The third time, 40 more interviews were carried out among Minangkabau people living in the densely populated commercial areas of Pasar Bina Usaha and Pasar Rakyat Nasional located in the city of Meulaboh in the sub-district of Johan Palawan (Aceh Barat district). In 2004, the density of population of Johan Pahlawan reached 3,767 people per km2. All Minagkabau people from Johan Pahlawan were then making a living from commercial activities (food retail, garment, clock repair). After withdrawal of the sea, the tsunami wave that struck Meulaboh has been estimated at 15 m by Yalciner et al. (2005) and 10 m by our field informants. According to the 2005 Potensi Desa survey, the population of Johan Pahlawan decreased from 55,592 people in 2003 to 45,897 in 2005, while the number of households diminished from 11,737 to 9,358 over the same period (Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam dan Nias 2006).

In parallel to the questionnaire-based survey, an ethnographic profile of each ethnic group was made. Several interviews with key informants have been conducted in the surveyed sectors in order to figure out the main cultural features of the local communities and appraise their representation of the disaster. Field work was eventually completed by a review of the relevant anthropological and historical literature and published materials pertaining to people’s response to the 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami. Only few anthropological and historical references turned out to be available. Materials on people’s response to the 26 December 2004 events include the study of Iemura et al. (2006) who conducted a survey among tsunami victims in Banda Aceh. They conclude by recommending disaster management measures largely of a technocratic and technological nature (i.e., information campaigns, evacuation structures, warning signals, dikes). The Asian Disaster Reduction Center and Pt. Mori Kharisma (2006) also carried out a survey among tsunami victims of Nias, Simeulue and West Aceh and recommend further raising natural hazards awareness. On the other hand, some researchers (Keys et al. 2006; Wisner and Walker 2006) investigated into the structural social and political-economy constraints at the origin of people’s vulnerability in the face of the earthquake and tsunami. They emphasize that population should play an active role in the reconstruction process and in disaster risk mitigation.

There are several limitations to the methodology used for this study. First, the questionnaire based-survey only covers survivors’ behaviour and not behaviours of the victims which may have differed. Yet, the huge death toll made it difficult to sample and ascertain victims’ behaviour in comparison to the survivor population. Second, the number of people interviewed is relatively small. The results of the survey thus provide trends at best. Furthermore, conclusions cannot be inferred from answers quoted by only a small number of respondents. Thus, all answers quoted by less than 12% of the people surveyed have not been included in the forthcoming analysis. However, it is noteworthy that the conclusions of the present study do not rely on the sole quantitative data derived from the questionnaire-based survey. They rather emphasize the integration of both quantitative and qualitative data.

5 Particular responses of each ethnic group in facing the 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami

The analysis of the questionnaires for the three surveyed areas show that people’s response in facing the 26 December earthquake and tsunami differed according to the ethnic groups despite the fact that, at the time of the earthquake at 7:58 am, more than two-thirds of the population of Kajhu, Air Pinang and Johan Pahlawan were similarly at home doing house chores or still sleeping (Table 3) with the company of their families.
Table 3

Answers to the question: “What were you doing just before the earthquake”? (n = 120)

 

House chores (%)

Sleeping (%)

Working (%)

At the market/store (%)

Other (%)

Kajhu (Acehnese)

42

26.2

10.6

10.6

10.6

Air Pinang (Simeulue)

52.6

10.5

26.3

0

1.5

J. Pahlawan (Minangkabau)

60

5.7

17.1

8.6

8.6

Note: Answers quoted by less than 12% of the respondents are not considered in the analysis

Significant differences in people’s behaviour occurred when the earthquake struck (Table 4). If a large part of the population of all three sectors first went outside their homes, a significant fraction of the inhabitants of Kajhu (18%) stood immobile and prayed. Conversely, one fourth of the respondents in Air Pinang immediately retreated to the surrounding mountains in fear of an impending tsunami. In all villages, a large part of the population decided to remain calm (between 17 and 31%) while dispersed families tried to get together, especially in Johan Pahlawan (almost 13% of interviewees). Overall, these behaviours are rational and correlate with those observed elsewhere in the world (Quarantelli and Dynes 1972).
Table 4

Answers to the question: “What did you do in the face of the earthquake?” (n = 120)

 

Pray (%)

Get out of the house (%)

Keep calm (%)

Look for open space (%)

Gather one’s family (%)

Run (%)

Go to work place(%)

Run to the mountains (%)

Other (%)

Kajhu (Acehnese)

17.9

31.1

24.4

6.7

4.4

4.4

2.2

0

8.9

Air Pinang (Simeulue)

0

45

17.5

0

0

5

0

25

7.5

J. Pahlawan (Minangkabau)

10.3

33.3

30.8

0

12.8

7.7

0

0

5.1

Note: Answers quoted by less than 12% of the respondents are not considered in the analysis

In Air Pinang, the earthquake was considered as a precursory sign announcing a tsunami. It was reinforced by the withdrawal of the sea, which was seen by 37% of the people surveyed (Table 5). On the other hand, the people of Kajhu and Johan Pahlawan became conscious of the tsunami threat late, compared to Simeulue. In Kajhu, 33% of interviewees heard the sound of the wave which is likened to a plane flying just overhead. In Johan Pahlawan, most of the victims reacted when they heard people fleeing and shouting (64% of the interviewees).
Table 5

Answers to the question: “How did you encounter the tsunami?” (n = 120)

 

Sound (%)

Shouts/People’s warning (%)

Sight of the wave (%)

Running people (%)

Black sky (%)

Sea withdrawal (%)

Army warning (%)

Animals behaviour (%)

Earthquake (%)

Decrease of water level in rivers and wells (%)

Do not know (%)

Kajhu (Acehnese)

33.3

18.2

12.1

6.1

3.0

3.0

0

0

0

0

24.2

Air Pinang (Simeulue)

0

11.1

3.7

0

0

37

0

7.4

18.5

11.1

0

J. Pahlawan (Minangkabau)

9.1

54.5

9.1

9.1

0

9.1

9.1

0

0

0

0

Note: Answers quoted by less than 12% of the respondents are not considered in the analysis

In the face of those informal warning signals, people’s behaviours also differ according to the study areas and ethnic groups concerned (Table 6). In Air Pinang, a very large segment of the population fled to the surrounding mountains. In Kajhu, people’s reaction were diverse yet still rational. Indeed, 32% of the interviewees chose to run inland, 20% got to the neighbouring hills. Others evacuated using a motorcycle (15%). In Johan Pahlawan, many victims also run inland (32%) or toward the nearest hills (21%). About 13% of the people went to the mosque and 21% moved up to the upper floor of their house.
Table 6

Answers to the question: “What did you do in the face of the tsunami?” (n = 120)

 

Run (%)

Run to the mountains (%)

Run to the ricefields (%)

Run to the mosque (%)

Climb a tree (%)

Ride a motorcycle/Car (%)

Move to upper floor (%)

Other (%)

Kajhu (Acehnese)

32.4

20.6

8.8

2.9

11.8

14.7

2.9

5.9

Air Pinang (Simeulue)

12.2

85.3

0

0

0

2.4

0

0

J. Pahlawan (Minangkabau)

31.6

21.1

0

13.2

5.3

5.3

21.1

2.6

Note: Answers quoted by less than 12% of the respondents are not considered in the analysis

When asked about the reasons behind these behaviours, most of the victims admitted that they reacted according to their own perception of the danger (between 40 and 50% of the answers). A significant fraction of the population also followed others’ behaviour (17–29% of the people) (Table 7). In Air Pinang, the qualitative analysis of the questionnaires and the key informant interviews show that the evacuation was a collective movement. Many victims gathered together before community leaders ordered the evacuation.
Table 7

Answers to the question: “Why did you act in that way?” (n = 120)

 

Actual observation of the phenomenon (%)

Other people’s behaviour (%)

Fear (%)

Family decision (%)

Religion (%)

Technical problem (%)

Do not know (%)

Other (%)

Kajhu (Acehnese)

50

25

11.1

5.6

2.8

2.8

2.8

0

Air Pinang (Simeulue)

40

17.5

40

0

0

0

0

2.5

J. Pahlawan (Minangkabau)

39.5

28.9

26.3

0

0

0

0

5.2

Note: Answers quoted by less than 12% of the respondents are not considered in the analysis

In all three-study sectors, the victims are hesitant regarding the origin of the earthquake. More than 50% of those interviewed have no idea of what may have caused the earth to shake (Table 8). Some refer to Allah’s punishment (between 16 and 27% of the interviewees). Natural phenomena are quoted by only 13–17% of people surveyed.
Table 8

Answers to the question: “What did cause the earthquake?” (n = 120)

 

Allah’s punishment (%)

Natural phenomenon (%)

Nuclear explosion/Drilling (%)

Other (%)

Do not know (%)

Kajhu (Acehnese)

15.8

13.2

10.5

2.6

57.9

Air Pinang (Simeulue)

27.5

17.5

0

0

55

J. Pahlawan (Minangkabau)

26.3

15.8

2.6

5.2

50

Note: Answers quoted by less than 12% of the respondents are not considered in the analysis

6 Ethnic groups’ response and disaster subculture

The different ethnic groups of Aceh did not respond similarly to the 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami. The reasons behind those dissimilar behaviours lie in different recent and older histories as well as particular cultural traits.

In Simeulue, the population anticipated the tsunami very early because of its very fine knowledge of the environment. About 85% of the people surveyed indeed feel culturally very close to the sea which resources are their main livelihood. Interviews with key informants from the community show that knowledge of the tsunami phenomenon is rooted in oral accounts of an event which occurred on Friday the 4th of January 1907 and, which would have killed between 400 (Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters 2006) and 1,800 people (Wyn W. Puwarto, University of Syracuse, New York). After this event, the island coastal areas would have been rendered infertile for years. This huge tsunami would have been generated by a 7.6-magnitude earthquake (Briggs et al. 2006). De Graaff et al. (1909) relate that the people of Simeulue then gathered to pray before converging towards the shore to collect dead fish. They would have eventually been caught by an immense wave that was preceded by a huge rumbling sound. About 85% of those surveyed in Air Pinang were aware of this disaster, which they learned of from their grandparents and parents (85% of the interviewees were in fact born in the village). A specific word in Simeulue vocabulary, smong, literally a huge flood, describes the tsunami phenomenon. Its precursory signs (earthquake or linon, sea withdrawal, fleeing animals, darkening of the sky, rumbling sounds or blasts) had similarly been remembered by the population of Simeulue and passed down from one generation to another. Thus, immediately after the 26 December 2004 earthquake, many people went to the sea to check if it was withdrawing. When it was confirmed, they sought refuge in defined areas in the surrounding mountains for several days with rice and other foodstuffs. Evacuation was swift since the first wave reached the shore of Simeulue only 20 min after the earthquake. Thanks to this very efficient behaviour, nobody was hurt by the 26 December 2004 tsunami in Air Pinang. Reminiscent of the 1907 event, a 7.3-magnitude earthquake shook Simeulue on 2 November 2002 and killed three people (United State Geological Survey 2006). About 95% of those interviewed in Air Pinang still remember the 2002 event. In the case of the Simeulue people of Air Pinang, historical (occurrence of a tsunami in quite recent history) and cultural (oral tradition) factors combined with the favourable geographical setting. The mountains were indeed very near the shore and enabled an easy and quick evacuation. Upland agriculture also guaranteed enough food to survive a long evacuation or the partial disruption of coastal livelihoods.

In Kajhu, the tsunami struck the coast 30 min after the earthquake shook the village. However, local Acehnese people neither detected nor anticipated the tsunami as the Simeulue people did. They thus lost “time control” which is yet a major issue of crisis management. Dombrowsky (1993) notes “the severity of a disaster is related to speed of preparation for the disaster. If the danger is faster than any protection, wreckage is unavoidable (...)”. Moreover, if 48% of the interviewees were born in Kajhu, more than 28% of those surveyed settled there less than 10 years ago. As a consequence, only 29% of the people felt culturally close to the sea because they were often fishing or because they were living along the coast. On the other hand, 29% of the interviewees went to the shore once a month or once a year and 21% of the people never had any contact with the sea prior to the 2004 disaster. Kajhu was a suburb of Banda Aceh and its environment was largely urban. Today, Nature’s signs seem to be appraised only by fishermen who were off fishing at the time of the tsunami. If 65% of the people of Kajhu knew what an earthquake was, only 20% of those surveyed were aware of the tsunami phenomenon before 2004, chiefly through media reports or school information. The western coast of Sumatra was indeed untouched by the 1907 tsunami that befell Simeulue. Interviews with key informants from Kajhu indicate that many victims rushed to the beach to collect dead fish and seashells after the sea had withdrawn on 26 December 2004. Most of them have eventually been swallowed by the wave. Interestingly, the Japan International Cooperation Agency—JICA (2005) conducted a survey among 1,000 people of Banda Aceh following the 28 March 2005 earthquake. Then, 62% of the population immediately evacuated their homes following the earthquake in fear of a new tsunami. Three months later, the 26 December experience turned out to be critical in the decision to evacuate. However, the JICA survey shows that only 57% of those interviewed went to safe places.

Similarly to the Acehnese people of Kajhu, the Minangkabau communities of Meulaboh did not interpret the sense of the earthquake and of the sea withdrawal. The lack of previous experience was here accentuated by the fact that Minangkabau people only came to Meulaboh recently. None of those surveyed in Johan Pahlawan was born there. Most of them were migrants who settled in Meulaboh during the 1990s. Almost 35% of the interviewees arrived less than 10 years ago. Furthermore, more than 55% of those surveyed had no contact with the sea and 76% of the people did not know what a tsunami was. Also, 76% of Minangkabau people never experienced a significant earthquake in their life. However, the traditional shopkeepers’ two-storey houses called rukoh enabled Minangkabau victims to quickly evacuate into the second floor. Moreover, traditional solidarity networks previously operating to welcome new migrants turned out to be of great help to shelter evacuees. Following the tsunami, many homeless victims were hosted by relatives and friends. Interviews with local informants show that they further benefited from loans in money and goods offered by kin or Minangkabau businessmen from Padang and Medan.

These differentiated responses to the 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami reveal the importance of disaster subcultures. Subcultures appear when people have to face unique problems and requirements related to specific social and ecological situations. Anderson (1965: 3) defined a disaster subculture as “those subcultural patterns operative in a given area which are geared towards the solution of problems, both social and non-social, arising from the awareness of some form of almost periodic disaster threat” and added that “a community’s disaster subculture serves as a blueprint for individual and group behaviour before, during, and after the impact of the disaster agent”. A disaster subculture usually includes cultural elements such as norms, values, beliefs, knowledge, technology and legends (Anderson 1965; Wenger and Weller 1973; Wenger 1978; Granot 1996). Since the 1907 tsunami and possibly even before that, the people of Simeulue have possessed such cultural gears. On the other hand, the Acehnese communities from Kajhu and Minangkabau communities from Meulaboh did not display those cultural elements. Wenger (1978) and Wenger and Weller (1973) lists three factors which determine the development of disaster subcultures. First is the repetitive impact of disasters and the persistence of the threat. In Simeulue, the 2002 earthquake served as a significant reminder of the threat anchored in people’s memory since 1907. The second factor is the forewarning time allowed by the tsunami hazard. The time gap between the precursory signs and the impact of the waves allowed the community to implement planned measures to mitigate the consequences. Third, the 1907 tsunami brought salient consequential damage in Simeulue. The level of damage led to the mobilization of institutional resources such as the educational system, which served as a powerful mean to diffuse knowledge about the tsunami hazard and adapted behavioural responses. Of critical importance is that a disaster subculture cannot be dissociated from its context (Wenger 1978). The capacity to acquire or maintain a subculture and apply cultural tools of coping with natural hazards is strongly determined by structural constraints.

7 Ethnic groups’ responses in their context: the structural constraints

Ethnic differentiation is evident in the existence or the absence of a disaster subculture. It is further shaped by dissimilar capacities to access resources, in its wider sense, and political representation. People’s response to natural hazards should thus be addressed within the larger cultural, economic and political context (Wisner 2004). In the case of Aceh, people’s behaviour in the face of the 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami was deeply shaped by cultural, economic and political constraints. Those structural constraints largely contributed to different ethnic histories.

First is the armed conflict that has affected the province since 1976. The present separatist movement led by the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) or Free Aceh Movement against the national government is the contemporary extension of older struggles against the Java-based colonial government even before Indonesia formally gained its independence in 1949. During this history, the separatist claim became religious, social and economic in nature as well as territorial (Robinson 1998; Mardhatillah 2004; Reid 20042005, 2006). The very particular context of a region affected by an armed conflict is fundamental in understanding people’s response to the earthquake and the tsunami and turned out to be a major cause of the disaster. The link between disaster vulnerability and armed conflicts has long been underlined in the literature (e.g., Wisner 2003; Wisner and Walker 2005 for recent syntheses) and recent catastrophes have often struck conflict-affected areas such as Sri Lanka (2004 tsunami), Pakistan (2005 earthquake), El Salvador (1998 Hurricane Mitch and 2001 earthquakes), Colombia (recurrent landslides), Algeria (2003 earthquake) or Western Africa states (recurrent famines). In Aceh, the impact of the tsunami was greatly accentuated by conflict-induced coastward population displacements, difficult access to land and resources, poverty, food insecurity, physical violence and torture (Budiardjo 2000; Sulistiyanto 2001; Amnesty International 2005). Beyond extreme vulnerability, the conflict and its related violence forced people to live in fear with restricted capacity to move around (Barron et al. 2005; McCullogh 2005). Fear of violence and physical abuse played a dissuasive role in people’s decision to evacuate inland in facing the earthquake and the tsunami. In Simeulue, which was not affected by the conflict, interviews with key informants show that the victims were not scared of running to the mountains (Table 6). On the other hand, in Kajhu, the survey shows that some people chose to head to the rice fields rather than to the mountains where the most violent encounters were occurring (Table 6). Minangkabau people of Meulaboh were less impacted by the conflict. Yet, both GAM combatants and the military pressured Minangkabau’s small businesses and many of them felt insecure (McCullogh 2005). Yet, it did not prevent people from Johan Pahlawan to evacuate. A large number of mutilation and torture victims were conversely incapable to flee on their own. The prevalence of poverty, which is intrinsically linked to the conflict, was another significant constraint to people’s behaviour in the face of the 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami. In 2004, Aceh ranked fourth among the poorest provinces in Indonesia with 28.5% of its population living below the poverty line set for the country of around 12 US$ per month for an individual living in rural areas and 16 US$ for one in urban areas (Maskum 2004; Badan Pusat Statistik 2006). Poverty and fragile resources directly limit the capacity for protection and evacuation. Some of the people interviewed mentioned that their cars were damaged or that their motorcycles had no fuel to explain why they had to run when they saw the wave. On the other hand, Minangkabau businessmen in Johan Pahlawan had sufficient resources to build sturdy two-storey houses, which withstood the tsunami and enabled them to evacuate.

Cultural heritage also turned out to be powerful constraints to people’s behaviour. The large number of female victims among Acehnese communities in Kajhu, Banda Aceh and surrounding areas (Oxfam International 2005) is rooted in their limited capacity of reaction. At the time of the tsunami, most women of the patrilineal Acehnese society were confined to their homes doing house chores and keeping an eye on their children while their husbands were off fishing. Moreover, most women did not know how to swim, drive or climb trees. About 83% of those surveyed who survived the wave by scaling trees were men. Interviews with key informants from Kajhu also show that local Acehnese families’ capital was made of gold jewels and accessories which were kept at home. The 26 December 2004 tsunami swept this capital away. Finally, the disaster was widely assimilated to Allah’s punishment (one-fourth of interviewees) and was thus more easily accepted (Table 8). In Acehnese culture, deities’ punishments are very important and well preserved in local folklore and literature. Cerita Rakyat Sikintan and Hikayat Srang Manyang are popular stories, which relate a disaster brought by flooding waters as a punishment for a child who did not want to recognize his parents. Both conclude that malediction will punish anyone who does not behave (“Soe nyang khianat la’nat u ateuh droe”) (Afian 1977, pp. 23–50; Departemen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan 1980, pp. 103–107). Beyond these accounts of ancient flooding episodes, interviews conducted with elderly Acehnese and meticulous scrutiny of available folklores did not yield any evidence of past tsunami events along the Sumatra western coast. Yet, geological records show that tsunamis may have struck this area several times during the historical period and prior to 1907, notably in 1797, 1833 and 1861 (National Geophysical Data Center 2007). Memory of these events and tsunami subculture vanished and may have been lost to the dominant mainstream Indonesian culture. If Simeulue communities are left in a relative state of isolation and preserved from fast acculturation, Banda Aceh is indeed much more open to external cultural influence. Memory of previous tsunami events cannot therefore be detached from the larger framework of culture clashes and relationships.

Finally, it is crucial to relate the capacity of reaction of Aceh’s victims to the larger Indonesian political-economy framework. The contemporary history of the Acehnese society is associated with an institutionalized looting of natural resources at the expense of local communities. In 2000, offshore gas drilling and platforms in the hands of powerful multinational companies contributed to 40% of Indonesian exports of 3 billion US$. However, it did not benefit local populations at the bottom of a patron-client pyramidal system. The provincial export/import ratio was largely negative (Fau 2003). Similarly, corruption deprives local communities of millions of rupiahs. Indonesia is in fact considered one of the most corrupt countries in the world (Transparency International 2005). Those constraints were much more significant in Banda Aceh and surrounding municipalities like Kajhu, well integrated in the national economic system, than in Simeulue, marginalized in national economic networks. On the other hand, Meulaboh’s Minangkabau communities benefited from a local commercial network less permeable to national and structural constraints. Ultimately, the country’s foreign debt, servicing of which comprised 8.9% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2003, was a huge burden for the Indonesian government which invested less than 1% of the GDP in education and health sectors in the same year (United Nations Development Programme 2005). The low level of investments in social services obviously impacts the capacity of people to face natural hazards. As an example, only 18% of Kajhu’s population was covered by health insurance in 2003 (Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam dan Nias 2006).

Overall, it is the interaction of the political economy-system, the cultural heritages and the armed conflict that have shaped people’s behaviour in the face of the 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami.

8 Conclusions

The dissimilar efficiency of the responses of the different ethnic groups of Aceh in the face of the 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami is explained by the existence or not of a disaster subculture among local communities. In Simeulue, the experience of past tsunami allowed to develop some specific cultural gear to cope with the tsunami hazard. On the other hand in Banda Aceh and Meulaboh did not display such subculture. Whether a disaster subculture exists or not, however, is insufficient to fully explain how people behaved in the face of the earthquake and tsunami. Indeed, people’s behaviour has been deeply shaped by cultural, economic and political constraints. Cultural heritages refer to the influence of the religion, which constituted a major constraint to female victims around Banda Aceh. Closely related to the cultural heritages, the armed conflict certainly acted as the most powerful direct and indirect constraint to people’s capacity to face the tsunami. Before being victims of the tsunami, the people of Banda Aceh, and in a lesser measure those of Meulaboh, were victims of the fights between GAM and the Indonesian government. The deeply unequal and unfair political-economy system accentuated the weight of those constraints. In this view, the disaster linked to 26 December earthquake and tsunami in Aceh should be seen as the extension of a daily situation of emergency rather than the mere consequence of a truly exceptional natural hazard.

The dissimilar behaviours of the people living in the province of Aceh thus lie in a particular cultural, social, economic and political context which shaped ethnic identities. It is fundamental to integrate those contextual and behavioural divergences in disaster management. Indeed, if ethnic factors are often recognized, they are still rarely fully included in disaster management policies. Integrating ethnic factors requires a local approach of daily constraints that burden people living in hazard-prone areas. To enhance the capacity of the people living in Aceh to face future tsunamis necessitates an improvement of everyday living conditions through enhanced access to resources, protection measures and improved political representation.

So far, it seems that international, national and local authorities have been focusing on technological and technocratic measures for disaster mitigation (i.e., modern warning system, evacuation structures, population information) (e.g., Fehr et al. 2005; Japan International Cooperation Agency 2005; Iemura et al. 2006). These measures are compulsory but insufficient if isolated from the larger context. They actually treat the symptoms, which, while important, disregard the root sources of harm which lie in ethnic, social, economic and political inequality. What is the use of a very good warning system if the population does not have access to the information or to evacuation means? Those recommendations are part of the larger development policies and do not refer to disaster management programs disconnected from their social and politico-economic context. Within this framework, the ongoing peace process between GAM and the Indonesian government is most probably the most efficient disaster mitigation measure.

Acknowledgements

This study was made possible through funding from the Tsunarisque programme sponsored by the Delegation Interministérielle pour l’aide Post-Tsunami (DIPT), the French Embassy in Indonesia and the Centre National pour la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). The authors would like to thank Franck Lavigne (Laboratoire de Géographie Physique – UMR 8591 CNRS), Raphaël Paris (Laboratoire Geolab – UMR 6042 CNRS), François Flohic (Planet Risk), Benjamin de Coster (Planet Risk), Damien Le Floch (Planet Risk), Pak Sutikno (Pusat Studi Bencana – Universitas Gadjah Mada), Shieni Suni (Universitas Gadjah Mada) and Michelle Pennec (Laboratoire de Géographie Physique – UMR 8591 CNRS) for their contribution to this study. Helpful comments on early drafts of this paper from Muriel Charras (Centre Asie du Sud-Est – UMR 8170 CNRS), Stéphane Cartier (Laboratoire de Géophysique Interne et de Tectonophysique – UMR 5559 CNRS), Ben Wisner (Oberlin College) and Greg Bankoff (The University of Auckland) are deeply appreciated.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008