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Asian Tsunami Reconstruction Moves Forward, Challenges Remain

Thailand Tsunami Recovery Gallery

Six months after the Asian tsunami - the biggest humanitarian disaster in decades - millions of survivors still face the challenge of rebuilding their homes and finding jobs. International aid agencies, governments and survivors themselves are struggling to keep the reconstruction momentum going.

For many of the survivors of the December 26 tsunami, daily life remains an uphill battle.

In Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and Indonesia's Aceh province, thousands of families still live in tents and camps.

Many complain that they have gotten little official help to rebuild their homes and businesses. Governments and aid agencies ask for patience, saying that reconstruction must be well planned, so that new communities can thrive in the years to come, and to avoid wasting money.

Fishermen in Thailand repair their boats in time for the fishing season. They say they received little government help to regain their livelihood.

The tsunami, triggered by a massive earthquake off the northern tip of Indonesia, swept across the Indian Ocean, sweeping away lives and communities in 12 countries - from Indonesia to Somalia on the east coast of Africa. Governments say more than 170,000 people died or disappeared, although many aid agencies and survivors say the toll may be close to 300,000. The victims came from all over the world - at least 2,000 tourists from Europe and North America were lost from the region's beaches - making this a global disaster.

Quick action by charity groups and governments, aided by regional military forces, including the U.S. Navy, to rush in emergency food and medical care, meant that those who survived the waves found food and shelter within days.

Worker at reconstruction site in Banda Aceh
But the process of actually replacing what was lost is slower, although survivors and aid workers say progress is being made. In Indonesia's Aceh province, the hardest-hit area, international aid has helped build temporary houses, schools and infrastructure.

Gianfranco Rotigliano, the United Nations Children's Fund representative for Indonesia, says that while far more must be done, much has been achieved.

"If we consider where we are, what was the situation before the tsunami and the programs that this country had in the past, what has been done has been remarkable to me," he says.

Before the tsunami, most of Aceh had been off limits to foreign aid groups because of a long-running separatist insurgency. That meant aid agencies were starting from scratch once they were allowed in after the tsunami.

One of the biggest achievements since then, he says, was that emergency workers prevented more deaths from hunger or disease. That meant they could quickly focus on meeting the region's other needs.

UNICEF has helped build 200 temporary earthquake-safe primary school buildings in time for the new school year starting in July. Over the next three years, UNICEF pledges to spend $90 million to repair or rebuild 500 permanent schools.

For thousands of survivors all over the region, regaining their livelihoods is the biggest problem, particularly for fishermen who lost their boats in the waves.

In the Thai village of Khao Phi Lai, a group of fishermen in early June excitedly inspected 200 new boats donated by United Arab Emirates.

This 70-year-old Thai fisherman says he couldn't imagine what he would do without a boat. He says earning a living has been hard for him especially because of his old age.

In Hambantota district in the badly hit Sri Lankan town of Galle, a town official, M.A. Piyasena, says rebuilding efforts are just beginning. Five thousand houses are being built with international help.

"By building houses and a school, people will move there," he says. "With new roads, buses will come, that will be the start of a new city.

But some townspeople hesitate to move into the new houses, saying they sit too close to the sea. Big waves, they say, cannot reach the tents in the camps.

In some areas, roads had to be rebuilt so that trucks could bring in construction materials. In others, whole towns must be built from the ground up, and governments are moving cautiously. Officials say they want to draft plans to create the schools, roads and water systems that will allow communities to thrive long into the future.

Mr. Rotigliano of UNICEF says residents must have a say in reconstruction if it is to succeed.

"The fact that communities have a voice is I think very important," he said. "They find out that they can decide on their own life, decide where they want the school, how big it would be, where they want the health center. This brings them back to normal civil society life, if I can say so."

The international community has pledged more than six billion dollars for tsunami relief and reconstruction, and donations continue to pour in. The United States promised $350 million immediately and plans to add about $500 million more in the coming years.

Aid workers and governments, however, warn that even more money, and far more time, will be needed over the next few years to restore the homes and businesses lost. For many of the victims, already worn out by from the effort, the wait will be long.