Tearfund tsunami relief three years on - the roots of a real recovery

Land reclaimed, thousands of homes reconstructed and livelihoods restored - three years after one of the world's worst natural disasters, communities continue to recover and rebuild.

UK Christian relief and development agency, Tearfund, has been operational in Indonesia and working with over 20 of its partner agencies in five affected countries - helping over 800,000 people affected by the tsunami.

The majority have been survivors in some of South Asia's poorest communities. Livelihood restoration has been critical to get people back on their feet, whether that is providing boats and nets for fishing communities in south east India or chilli farming on Sumatra's western coast.

Tearfund relief and reconstruction programmes overcame monumental tasks in the weeks and months after the 2004 tsunami killed some 300,000 people. Thousands more were made homeless - half a million people in Sri Lanka alone. In the Indonesian province of Aceh over 40 per cent of people lost their livelihoods.

When the tsunami smashed into Cot Darat, a village at sea level three miles from Indonesia's coastline, vast areas of arable farmland, wells and groundwater suffered salt contamination.

The UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimated that 70 per cent of Aceh's west coast farmland was affected with 20 per cent permanently damaged. The economy, heavily dependent on agriculture, was devastated with some 160,000 people losing their livelihoods.

Farmers that previously grew red chilli pepper were forced to give up farming and find alterative livelihoods. However, despite discouraging prospects for recovery in the area some were convinced that the land retained farming potential.

Ahmad Sahir, an Agricultural Project Officer for Tearfund's recovery programme in Aceh has a background in organic agriculture. His vision was to see farmland regenerated and lives rehabilitated.

"The land is a like a person," he said. "You simply need to know what it needs and then you can find a solution for nearly every possible problem." Ahmad's plan was to rehabilitate tsunami damaged lands using organic methods - proper tilling of the soil and organic fertilizers and pesticides.

A women's group in the village were first to try organic techniques to rehabilitate their land to grow vegetables. They needed to be convinced that organic pesticides made from onion, ginger and papaya didn't also contain chemicals.

But the project succeeded and Cot Darat's farmers allowed Tearfund to run a pilot project on a section of their land to determine whether chilli production, a finicky crop to cultivate with a specific pH balance, could also succeed. Drainage systems were dug and lime helped raise the pH level.

Ahmad has helped to train other farmers in the making and use of organic fertilizer and pesticides. This is just one example of helping people to 'build back better'. Environmental awareness and reducing the risk of disasters is key for communities where so many livelihoods are dependent on natural resources.

The initial chilli harvest using organic methods produced an abundant crop convincing farmers to apply the technique to their reclaimed land.

Some recovery experts were quick to advise them to find new land elsewhere but Ahmad adds, "our job was to rehabilitate agriculture and the meaning of the word 'rehabilitate' means to put back what was once there in good condition not 'find something new elsewhere'."

In addition the programme has provided business training and savings management to help re-establish livelihoods faster if disaster should hit again.

Tearfund has also been working with schools in Aceh training teachers and headmasters in 167 schools that are implementing a risk reduction curriculum.

Children are among the most vulnerable in disasters, but they also present powerful catalysts for education now rooted in their generation. Trauma counselling and education have also been a key focus of the recovery programmes.

Tearfund's partner agencies in Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia and Thailand have built some 3,600 permanent houses - after first providing high-quality intermediate shelters. In all of Tearfund's housing projects, local people have been involved in the design of their new homes.

People are back to work. Livelihood programmes have helped some 150 fishing communities get back at sea, thanks to new boats and nets - and a further 865 small businesses have been re-established. 3100 people in Somalia are benefiting from wells and clean water sources.

Three years on there is clearly work still to do across the whole affected region. The recovery process was always going to take years, not months - and the emotional scars of this disaster linger long after the homes are built and land reclaimed.

Tearfund is among many other agencies that whilst acknowledging the tough challenges, have significant progress to show for the scale of this unprecedented relief and recovery effort.

The public response to the Boxing Day 2004 Tsunami became the UK's biggest ever disaster appeal. £27 million has now been spent or allocated to Tearfund relief and recovery programmes. Tearfund is sincerely grateful for the massive public support.