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At a glance: Indonesia

School construction poses unique challenges on post-quake Nias Island

© UNICEF Indonesia/2007
Fifth-grade students during a lesson at the semi-permanent Dahana Humane Primary School, just outside Nias Island’s capital, Gunung Sitoli.

NIAS ISLAND, Indonesia, 7 February 2007 – At the UNICEF-provided semi-permanent primary school of Dahana Humane, just outside Nias Island’s capital Gunung Sitoli, morning religion class is under way for the 18 students in the fifth grade.

“Remember, we must respect our parents and elders,” imparts headmistress Ibu Larosa, who has jumped in to replace the absent religion teacher. The lessons are interspersed with clapping and religious songs.

Jungle-clad Nias, a predominantly Christian island 350 km southwest of Banda Aceh, was mostly spared the wrath of the 2004 tsunami. But three months later it was torn up by a devastating 8.7-magnitude earthquake.

‘Better than studying in tents’

Until a few months ago, the 134 primary students of Dahana Humane were studying in emergency school tents. Then in October 2006, UNICEF and its implementing partner, the International Organization for Migration, completed a semi-permanent school building to house classes until a new permanent school building is ready.

After 18 months of taking lessons in tents, the students moved into the semi-permanent building.

Next door, the site of their planned permanent school has been fenced off and materials delivered. But for now, the students attend classes in a single long building divided into six classrooms.

“This is better than studying in tents. In the tents you can hear everyone’s voice magnified, and it becomes hard to concentrate,” said Agusmawati, a sixth grader.

© UNICEF Indonesia/2007
For now, the students of Dahana Humane study in a single long building divided into six classrooms for the first to sixth grades.

School construction in remote areas

When the earthquake struck late on the night of 28 March 2005, the students were in bed. Most ran up nearby mountains with their parents, fearing a tsunami. When they came down the next day, their school was gone.

In fact, about 90 percent of the underdeveloped island’s infrastructure was damaged or destroyed in the quake, which also killed 800 and injured 5,000.

To date, UNICEF has completed more than 40 semi-permanent primary schools and has begun construction of 20 permanent ones. Another 40 sites for permanent schools in more remote areas are still being identified; all will be in rough, hilly terrain up to eight kilometres from established roadways.

UNICEF’s Construction Unit is currently thrashing out the logistics of transporting between 250 and 350 tonnes of building materials into each of these sites.

“The options are either to carry the material in by hand, mount the materials on small all-terrain vehicles or contract helicopters to air-freight the materials over the jungle,” says UNICEF’s Head of Construction for Aceh and Nias, John Townsend. Mr. Townsend led a team from the Nias field office into one of the remote jungle sites in mid-January to observe the building challenges firsthand.

Highlight of quake recovery

Carrying steel and concrete along muddy jungle tracks is not the only problem inherent in building earthquake-resistant schools on the quake-prone island.

Mr. Townsend listed a range of other obstacles, including a lack of local contractor capacity, poor materials, limited skilled labour and bad weather, coupled with high design standards for seismic resistance.

But despite the challenges, construction of permanent schools is a highlight of UNICEF’s $86 million quake recovery programme in Nias for 2007. While most of the planned permanent schools are replacing pre-existing earthquake-damaged structures, some will be the first-ever primary schools in their areas.



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