Indonesia: School reconstruction - 'building back better'

Source(s): The New Humanitarian

As horrific as the 2004 Asian tsunami was, 11-year-old Iba Rada points to at least one positive aspect. After thousands of schools were destroyed, the effort to "build back better" - former President Bill Clinton's slogan for the recovery process - seems to be succeeding in school reconstruction in Banda Aceh City, Aceh Province.

Rada, a student at Public Primary School 51, delights in the new facility. "It's clean and beautiful and has very good study materials," she told IRIN.

Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, head of Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi (BRR), the Indonesian Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency, said on 26 December 2008, the fourth anniversary of the tsunami, that 1,450 school buildings had been rebuilt in the province.

School 51 is one of 175 built by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the first one completed in September 2006. Another 171 are under construction, due to be finished in 2009. Twelve completed UNICEF schools are in the former conflict zones between the government and the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM), the Free Aceh secessionist movement. A memo of understanding was signed in August 2005, leading to a curtailment of the conflict but continuing tensions. Eighty such schools are expected to be built by UNICEF in the former conflict zones.

For students and teachers still waiting, lessons are taking place in emergency tents and prefabricated structures, Anna Stechert, programme communications specialist for UNICEF Banda Aceh, told IRIN.

Safety first

Cut Agi, principal of School 51, which opened in August 2008, told IRIN her brother-in-law, a teacher at the former school, 12 students and the former principal were all killed in the tsunami. "I lost 20 immediate relatives and still feel traumatised when earthquakes hit," said Cut Agi.

"For several years we were in temporary schools which were crowded and hot," she said. "School 51 got under construction in November 2007, and the students were waiting anxiously for its completion ... They thought it would never happen. But today we are all happy ... We never dreamed that we would get a building with strong construction."

The schools are bright blue, airy and, most importantly, have multiple stairs and exits so students can evacuate quickly, UNICEF's Stechart told IRIN. "The schools have also been especially designed to be earthquake resistant."

While the former school could accommodate only 100 or so students, the new one has 214 - of whom half are girls. "Many more students long to attend the new school 51, but we simply cannot accommodate them," said the principal.

At Private Primary School 34, which is nearly completed, Subhash Monga, United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) field office manager for Banda Aceh, took IRIN around the construction site, which broke ground in December 2007. The facility will include 22 classrooms, a library, teachers' office, two sets of toilets, including ones for the disabled.

"Most of the delay in construction comes from a lack of skilled labour in Aceh," said Monga. "Most of our workers come from Medan [a 45-minute flight away] because there is so much construction in Banda Aceh and skilled workers are hard to find." Monga also decried the rising costs of construction material. "Steel has risen 50 percent in price over the last year and cement 20 percent," he said, "and the decline in the value of the dollar has affected all purchases."

Building capacity

"For UNICEF, it has always been important to not only focus on the 'hardware' and construction but also to increase the capacity of the teachers, particularly as so many were killed in the tsunami," Jean Metenier, chief field officer for UNICEF in Aceh, told IRIN.

Yuliatic, a sixth-grade teacher who has taught at school 51 since 1987, said her students were now eager to attend classes in the new school, as evidenced by Rada: "I find I want to come to school more regularly than at the old one ... There I was lazy about coming to study and the old school leaked with the rain and was constantly wet."

Rada, who wants to be a doctor, added: "It seems like there are better students at this new school. We're getting improved grades and can concentrate better ... and the teachers pay more attention to us."

bj/mw

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