Natural Hazards

, Volume 47, Issue 1, pp 17–38 | Cite as

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

  • Jean-Christophe Gaillard
  • Elsa Clavé
  • Océane Vibert
  • Azhari
  • Dedi
  • Jean-Charles Denain
  • Yusuf Efendi
  • Delphine Grancher
  • Catherine C. Liamzon
  • Desy Rosnita Sari
  • Ryo Setiawan
Original Paper


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 



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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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jean-Christophe Gaillard
    • 1
  • Elsa Clavé
    • 2
  • Océane Vibert
    • 3
  • Azhari
    • 4
  • Dedi
    • 4
  • Jean-Charles Denain
    • 5
  • Yusuf Efendi
    • 6
  • Delphine Grancher
    • 7
  • Catherine C. Liamzon
    • 8
  • Desy Rosnita Sari
    • 9
  • Ryo Setiawan
    • 9
  1. 1.UMR 5194 Pacte – CNRSUniversité de GrenobleGrenobleFrance
  2. 2.Laboratoire Archipel – UMR 8170 Centre Asie du Sud-Est – CNRSEcole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences SocialesParisFrance
  3. 3.The Global Disaster Information NetworkSouth RidingUSA
  4. 4.Tikar Pandan, Jl. Salihin, Komp. BTN Lam GeulumpangBanda AcehIndonesia
  5. 5.Laboratoire Gester – EA 3766Université Paul Valery – Montpellier IIIMontpellierFrance
  6. 6.Sekolah Tinggi Keguruan dan Ilmu Pendidikan HamzanwadiLombok Timur, Nusa Tenggara BaratIndonesia
  7. 7.Laboratoire de Géographie PhysiqueUMR 8591 CNRSMeudonFrance
  8. 8.Department of Geography, College of Social Sciences and PhilosophyUniversity of the Philippines, Diliman CampusQuezon CityPhilippines
  9. 9.Jurusan Teknik Arsitektur, Fakultas TeknikUniversitas Gadjah MadaYogyakartaIndonesia

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