Imas has been living in a tent with her husband and two children for the past three months since they lost their home in the Sept. 2 West Java earthquake. The shelter is made of worn tarpaulins stretched over a light wooden frame. Mats cover the dirt floor.
“When it rains heavily, the roof leaks,” Imas said.
She said the tent was cold at night, too hot during the day, and the area very dusty. Since moving into the tent, her children, aged 10 and 16, have both fallen ill three times.
The internally displaced persons camp is in Pangalengan, Bandung. With 250 families, it is the largest IDP camp in West Java, and hosts families whose land has been condemned by the government as it is considered too precarious to be safe. They are living in tents in a tea plantation while they wait to hear where they will be allowed to build permanent homes.
Imas said she was concerned about security because she could not lock the tent. “When I go to work [farming government-owned land], I feel insecure about leaving the children here.”
She said her sister, who also lives in the camp, was robbed a week earlier when she left her tent unattended. A gas bottle and tarpaulin were taken. Imas believes the culprit was “someone else from the camp whose own tarpaulin was damaged or worn out.”
Survivors of the quake have had to make do with limited aid, which was further reduced after relief agencies headed to Padang after the West Sumatra earthquake a few weeks later on Sept. 30.
David Hodgkin, has been working for the United Nations Development Program coordinating shelter agencies in West Java since about two weeks after the earthquake. “Over 40 agencies responded to the West Java quake — that included many major international agencies as well as national agencies — but when [the West Sumatra quake] struck, the bulk of those agencies left straight for Padang to respond to that,” he said.
In the week after the 7.3-magnitude West Java quake, government figures showed that more than 50,000 houses had been destroyed and 80,000 people were left homeless. The National Agency for Disaster Management (BNPB) put the number of people displaced at over 250,000.
Hodgkin, who also worked in the coordination and delivery of post-disaster shelter after the 2006 earthquake in Yogyakarta and in Aceh after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, estimated that 50,000 families were still living in tents. “Aid agencies perceive there are [currently] around 90,000 families who need assistance,” Hodgkin said, adding that in the initial stages of the earthquake response “less than half even got a tarpaulin.”
He said measuring the impact of the disaster and delivering aid was “uniquely difficult” due to the large area the earthquake covered and the isolation of the affected areas.
“I’ve been into villages where the damage levels don’t appear on lists, where there are no agencies assisting,” he said.
From the quake-affected area in the south of Bandung, it would take 10 hours to reach affected areas in the southeast of West Java, and another 10 hours to reach villages in the opposite direction, he said
“When the quake struck, it struck over a very large area. It didn’t have a focal point like Padang, therefore it was harder for the media or anyone else to focus on it,” he said.
He added that the government’s initial statement, rejecting the need for international assistance, had left some agencies confused about whether they were even allowed to help.
While the government is providing a stimulus package of up to Rp 15 million ($1,600) per family to rebuild, and a number of nongovernmental organizations are assisting in the provision of transitional shelter, the time it takes to rebuild means many families face the onslaught of the monsoonal rains with only a tarpaulin over their heads.
Aep, Imas’ husband, is one of the camp coordinators elected by his fellow IDPs in the camp to represent them. He said that living in the camp made it harder for many people to continue working as they had so many other concerns, and that his own family had been forced to spend most of their savings.
“We really need the government to make a relocation plan, [living in tents] is not good for families or children at school,” he said.
He added that after three months in the camp, a roster system for families to clean the toilets and maintain facilities had broken down.
The other camp coordinator, Carmim, who lives in a tent with his two wives and four children, aged between 5 and 17 years, emphasized the need for long-term shelters. “At least with transitional shelters we will be able to focus on work and won’t have to worry about leaky tents,” the former convenience shop owner said.
But the IDPs in Pangalengan are among the lucky ones. At a coordination meeting earlier the same day in the village, local and district government officials, members of the Indonesian and Netherlands Red Cross organizations and camp coordinators met to discuss shelter solutions for the families. It was agreed at the meeting that the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) would provide transitional bamboo shelters on the land. Although the tea plantation is the property of state-owned company PT PD Mamin, the government officials at the meeting were confident they could obtain permission for the temporary housing.
“It is unlikely that the permanent relocation issue will be achieved within a year,” Hodgkin said.
Silviana Puspita, a disaster management officer with the Netherlands Red Cross, which, along with Spanish Red Cross, International Federation of the Red Cross and the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office, is one of the international organizations supporting and funding PMI’s work, said that PMI — which has the largest transitional shelter program in the area — only aimed to assist the groups they identified as the most vulnerable, such as single mothers and people without land rights.
“We try to link transitional shelter to government plans to rebuild damaged houses,” Silviana said, explaining that the shelters are designed to last for up to two years. “PMI has committed to building 3,000 transitional bamboo shelters for West Java. So far, around 500 have been built, with people already living in them. We expect to finish everything by December,” Silviana said.
She explained that PMI programs utilize volunteers who teach technical skills to quake survivors who are involved in the manual labor of rebuilding.
But these efforts will only reach a minority of the families currently living in tents or crowding into the houses of their extended family. Hodgkin estimated that between all the agencies involved, a total of 6,000 transitional shelters will be built, which “will meet 10 to 15 percent of the need.”
Hodgkin said that for people living in tents through the monsoon season, “When they do receive permanent government shelter assistance it will increase the pressure on them to rush to rebuild and this may adversely affect the quality of the houses built.”
He added that while “the government shelter stimulus package is massive,” the amount provided by the government is nowhere near sufficient to build a high quality house and “it doesn’t address the interim needs.”
One of the benefits of transitional shelter — apart from allowing a more rapid return to normality — is that it gives people time to save and plan to rebuild better houses.
“Transitional shelter interventions are an opportunity for agencies to engage with communities on a hands-on basis around the subject of construction. It allows discourse about earthquake-resistant construction in a practical way,” Hodgkin said. “This is a disaster-prone area and if people don’t build back better the houses will fall down again, and we’ll end up back here again.”
Hodgkin said the reconstruction phase could take years. “Although people may have a small house up and running in a year it may take them five years until they have what they had before the quake. The poorest of the poor may never recover.”
“[For example] in Yogyakarta there are families that might have previously owned a 100- to 200-square-meter house before the  quake that are currently living in a 50-square meter house and slowly extending.”
He added, “In remote areas here [West Java] families have reconstruction skills and perhaps access to local materials, but materials such as cement and steel are expensive and prices will rise.”
“Also, the government assistance package, due to inflation, is worth less this time than it was in Yogyakarta.”
“The impact of this is that [for example] families that may have been able to send their children to university may now not be able to. Opportunities for those families will be reduced. Many families have used up their savings over the past months, setting back their life plans and ambitions,” he said.