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. Massive Road For Tsunami-Hit Aceh Founders

Motorists make their way on a flooded road which was destroyed by the 26 December 2004 tsunami in Pasi Lhoong, in Aceh, 22 October 2006. Photo courtesy of Sophie Boudre and AFP.
by Sophie Boudre
Kuala Bubun, Indonesia (AFP) Nov 5, 2006
Zainal Abidin, 35, queues for a raft across the Kuala Bubun river in Indonesia's Aceh province near ghost-like crumbling bridge pylons, all that remains of the road that was washed away by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Like the rest of Aceh, Abidin awaits the US-funded construction of the mostly new 243-kilometre (150-mile) highway linking the provincial capital Banda Aceh at the tip of Sumatra to the town of Meulaboh and the rest of the island.

The delayed emblematic project -- the largest planned in the wake of the catastrophe which killed 168,000 people in worst-hit Aceh alone -- has been plagued by wrangling over its route and land purchases.

"I've been lining up for two hours," complains Zainal, a fuel-seller with half a dozen plastic containers strapped to his motorcycle. Prior to the tsunami, he made three trips a day down to Meulaboh to refill his containers.

"But with the raft I can only do one trip, and sometimes my fuel gets damaged from so much waiting in the sun," he says.

Nearly two years after the US Agency for International Development (USAID) took on the task of rebuilding the vital west coast road, construction has barely begun.

"Maybe we'll start building in 2007," says Tommy Nardipta, an engineer with a team contracted to work for the agency.

"It's a long time for people here to wait," he concedes, standing waist-deep in muddy water as he surveys the riverbed where a 90-metre (-yard) long bridge will be built, eventually easing Zainal's plight.

The road before the tsunami was a simple six-metre wide, two-lane affair with very little drainage. It took five hours to traverse. Now it's a 10-hour back-breaking journey, sometimes unpassable even in a four-wheel drive.

USAID handed the Indonesian agency charged with reconstruction in Aceh (BRR) a first design of the major part of the road in mid-June this year.

The vision is a 30-metre wide corridor, with a seven-metre wide stretch of asphalt for two lanes, with room to expand later on. The price tag: 245 million dollars.

Delays getting the first blueprint in have occurred due to an apparent lack of coordination with aid agencies on the ground, which have started projects in the road's path, along with heated discussions about the price of land.

USAID says 5.7 kilometres of road -- in two sections -- is ready to be constructed. To complete the remainder, the BRR now has to snap up more than 33,000 individual parcels.

"Imagine yourself knocking on 33,000 doors! This is a very difficult process," says Roy Ventura Jr., a veteran of US infrastructure projects who has been in charge of the project for USAID since May.

USAID says the project will be completed in late 2009. Meanwhile, it has been paying its main contractor, the Indonesian state-owned company Wijaya Karya, some 100,000 dollars a month for continued maintenance of the old road.

BRR chief of operations Eddy Purwanto says the agency has mobilised 10 million dollars for purchases this year, and defends it against criticism that this process has taken too long to get underway.

He insists that the BRR could not start acquiring land without a plan.

"That's why we waited until the middle of June, to get the exact right of way in certain areas. Now we're moving rapidly," he says.

Still, it's not a simple process.

"Most of the land is in rural areas and most people don't have land titles so the proof of ownership is based on the people's knowledge, the village heads, the religious leaders," Purwanto tells AFP.

"So we need the agreement of all the neighbours if we want to settle land acquisitions."

Threats have been aired to withdraw the US funding, he says.

"That can still possibly happen, but considering the significant investment -- a lot of money has been put in -- and when they look at the progress, that is a positive factor."

The village of Pudeng, two hours south of Banda Aceh, epitomizes the mind-boggling challenge.

"We come across a grave, change path, then another, change again, and then a house," gestures Mawardi, a Wijaya Karya worker doing survey work to map out parts of the route yet to be finalised.

"So now the process is stalled."

Pudeng's village head Mohammad Yusuf Adami insists no one can touch 30 Dutch colonial-era graves left intact by the tsunami.

"Recently two people cut down the big tree in the middle of the graveyard and immediately fell sick and died," he recounts.

"Better demolish the school, you can always rebuild. Not the graves."

Nearby, red and yellow flags marking the middle and edges of the future road are dotted through a cluster of wooden shelters and concrete foundations for houses that were supposed to come.

Muhammad Amin, 40, who lost his wife in the tsunami and lives with his two children in a temporary shelter, saw construction of his permanent brick house -- on the remnants of the old -- stopped by the road design.

"The village head told me I could get compensated so I can buy new land," the frail-looking man says, gesturing at a red flag planted in his backyard.

"I am not moving out of here if I don't get compensated."

The BRR plans to rebuild houses and schools affected by the new route.

"I don't know anymore, I don't know where to go," says Muhammad's neighbour, 60 year-old Rahman.

"The road, we need it. The house, we need it too. But first we need a house," says the old man with a toothless smile.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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