Case Study: 2005 Earthquake in Indonesia


The March 28, 2005 earthquake in Indonesia highlights two hurdles to post-disaster recovery: government corruption and the marginalization of the underserved in relief efforts. To Indonesians, the island if Nias had a bad name. It is a Christian island in a predominately Muslim region. The people of Nias are regarded as savages because of stereotypes based on events over a century old. In 1986, the island had one doctor for 508,000 inhabitants, no electricity outside of the two port towns, and the road connecting the north and south was regularly washed out. In 2005, the island still had one doctor, sporadic power and a neglected road while the population had risen to over 640,000. Unlike oil-rich Aceh, Nias lacks valuable resources. Still, an administrative position in the Nias government was worth ₤100,000 in bribes as an investment in anticipated profits.


Nias was just as close to the epicenter as Aceh, but press coverage was limited to Gunung Sitoli, Nias’ only sizable town (population: 25,000). This selective news blackout made it easy for government officials to ignore the rest of the island in relief efforts. Abandoned for weeks, Niasans from the center of the island hiked to Gunung Sitoli to demand government aid. When a military helicopter carrying food and tents arrived, the helicopter was attacked by a starving, angry mob. The action only served to confirm the island’s backwoods reputation.

Architectural Adaptation

For the 90% of Niasans who live on the interior, the notion of infrastructure loss was meaningless. They have never enjoyed the benefits of roads, hospitals, refrigerators, or proper schools. Yet the rest of Indonesia could learn a lesson from Niasan architecture. During the previous earthquake-tsunami on December 26, 2004, Nias suffered only 340 casualties versus the 130,000 in Aceh. Niasans built their houses on hilltop settlements distancing them from the waters. They survived the aftershocks because their traditional houses are built to withstand earth tremors. Jointed rather than nailed, the houses are supported on a small forest of cantilevered boles that absorb shock.


As with the earthquake in Kachchh, pre-earthquake social structures quickly overwhelm any cooperative spirit found in the immediate days after. How can design use the context of an earthquake for positive social change? Are there underserved communities in Chile that could be reintegrated into the broader society? What are the systems, checks and balances that need to be in place to ensure aid flows to those in need?

Beatty, Andrew. “Aid in Faraway Places, The Context of an Earthquake.” Anthropology Today 21.4 (2005): 5-7. Print.

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