Disaster Debris Management – a Reflection on Success in Aceh and Learning Lessons in Tacloban

Lesley Wright with Faisal Ridwan and Tim Walsh

Large-scale debris clean-up in a disaster zone is only the start of the process towards recovery – but it’s the first step that leads to the next and the next. It is early recovery demonstrated in a complex but complete nutshell.

Aceh was the first and the worst; nothing seen before, and precedent setting. Waste experts mobilized and set to work on re-organizing the initial clean-up.

Over the next eight years, UNDP led the way in debris removal, transitioning into short-, medium- and long-term development work treating waste as both resource and livelihood. In 2013 Typhoon Yolanda upturned lives in the Philippines and UNDP brought lessons learned from Aceh and employed them to great success, knowing what works and putting those lessons into action with meaningful results. 

Understanding Early Recovery

When I see the words early recovery my mind shuts off, hits the snooze button and takes a quick five. Admit it; yours did too a bit.

In fact, so obtuse and beige are those words, I will start again with a little more colour this time.

When Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) slammed into the Philippines on 8 November 2013, no one was prepared for the waste it laid. Evacuation was sporadic. Security was absent. A dense carpet of historical political drama muffled The Response in those first few crucial days. The real death toll remains unknown. Officially, to this day, it sits just over 6,000. Locals say it runs as high as 15,000.

When my feet touched down two weeks later, the damage was shocking. The stench of death and piles of debris were suffocating. It was a multi-billion dollar disaster.

My colleague and friend, Faisal Ridwan, who had arrived a few days prior, picked me up from the airport along with our friend and waste and debris guru, Dr. Tim Walsh, who had arrived within the first week. The Wasters, as we are affectionately known (only to ourselves), comprise engineers, environmentalists, hangers on and groupies, garbage collectors and waste pickers. Brought together by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, a few Wasters reunited in Tacloban, Leyte.

Our first stop from the airport: Fisherman’s Village in San Jose, Barangay 88. The landscape was dotted with wood, mud, overturned trucks dangling in the few trees still standing, but survivors in blue UNDP-logoed t-shirts were already sifting through the debris.

The United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) cash-for-work (CfW) scheme had been up and running for a week, giving a daily wage to survivors to clean up their communities.

“CfW organises those remaining in devastated communities into teams to clean up their own areas and injects cash into the local economy, kick starting local small businesses. It has the added benefits helping to take minds off the dead and missing as well as affording people the dignity of buying the things they need like food and water and essentials, independently relieving them of relying solely on aid handouts.”

Over the next few weeks, the Aceh Wasters, supported by some committed Filipino national UNDP team members – some ‘Wasters’ themselves having helped in previous less severe by still serious typhoons like 2012’s Pablo, endeavoured to make a plan; that is, survey the damage, knock on the right government and community doors, entertain donors and other VIPs (a necessary evil and topic for another essay), and get the ball rolling on the massive clean-up, all with an eye on six months, one year, five years, ten years from now.

That’s the trick of early recovery that goes beyond any text book, any guidance note, any dictionary entry; any step forward must be taken with the confidence in and knowledge of setting of the right sustainable trajectory. In disaster debris management, this is a path we had walked before and having just crossed a significant decade long milestone in Aceh, we knew what worked, what didn’t and moreover, we used those lessons, actually used them, not just pretendsies, and made our early response to Yolanda something bound to succeed.


We took a rare break, looking out into the bay of Tacloban. Timber lapped against the water’s edge, old clothes undulated in the current.

“You know, I really believe in what we are doing here,” said Ridwan, himself a tsunami survivor. “I am standing in front of these people talking to them from a unique place: I was one of them only nine years ago. And I can tell them: it does get better.”

Ridwan would know. The 9.1 earthquake and subsequent 26 December 2004 tsunami left his house mostly unscathed, but having outrun the tsunami on a motorbike, temporarily separated from his wife and his nine-month old daughter, unknowing whether they were alive or dead, Ridwan set about to rebuild Banda Aceh and the districts hardest hit by one of the largest natural disaster ever seen in modern times.

Disaster waste management, step by step

Meanwhile, seeing a gap in expertise, OCHA (UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) and the UNDAC, UN’s Disaster Assessment and Coordination agency, called on UNDP to provide waste and environmental field resources. Dr. Walsh arrived to assess the tsunami damage. He was the initial visionary of the Tsunami Recovery Waste Management Programme, a staggeringly impressive USD 50 million project that originated in those early days. Questions needed rapid answers:

What was the tsunami debris made up of?  In the towns up and down Aceh’s coast, the landscape was littered with mangled cars screwed up like sheets of waste paper – broken up bridges, offices and hundreds of thousands of houses – absolutely everything from the roofs, walls, the kitchen sink, jewelry, down to cuddly toys. In the fertile agricultural coastal belt, crops were lost with fields inundated with metres of salt water, silt and muddy sand. In amongst this, uncollected and ever-growing municipal and medical waste added to the stench endangering public health.

How much was there? Where was it? Initial estimates suggested over 10 million cubic metres…- huge volumes of waste – once belonging to someone – now mixed up with mud and trees and swept up to several kilometers from where it once stood; enough waste to fill three football pitches three storeys high. The first cleared roads provided access for rescue crews to distribute aid to the living and recover the dead.  Commercial heavy equipment rolled in in a massive humanitarian drive; the largest ever conducted. Debris was dumped in temporary locations to get it out of the way, then over the years was recycled and what was left over was sent to permanent sites.

What should be done with it?  CfW teams got working early – over 50,000 survivors, many of whom were women, were engaged, supervised by partners in local government and supported by heavy equipment like excavators and bulldozers, focusing first on critical buildings like hospitals and aid centres and secondary roads. Municipal waste pick-up started first in order to safeguard the public health and safety of the CfW teams. From the beginning UNDP treated the debris as a resource – something of value to help in the reconstruction. What could be recycled generally was, and there was lots of it – while valuable metals were quickly scavenged and sold (including all downed electric power lines), as were collected plastics, concrete was crushed and used as aggregate for road base or as fill to reclaim land lost to the sea.  Wood, much of it good tropical hardwood, initially went to build temporary shelters with almost 18,000 m3 of timber recovered and fed into UNDP-sponsored carpentry workshops, making furniture, much to replace that lost at schools. On request, UNDP removed boats from roofs and demolished over 500 unsafe buildings including a 12-storey hotel, cash-filled bank vaults, and a massive mushroom-shaped water tower that required two years of planning and a team of highly-skilled South African explosives experts to bring it 50m down to earth.

Where to put the rest and how do we get it there? Several temporary tsunami dumpsites dotted the public spaces in towns and the district dumpsites, which were in a state of neglect following years of conflict, needed upgrading to receive the large volumes of residual tsunami waste. Cleaning up the temporary sites and moving the sorted debris and other waste to municipal dumps took time – years – hundreds of dump-trucks and human resources, but was a coordinated and effective process led by the local government, in parallel with a capacity building programme. In all, 1.3 million cubic metres of tsunami debris was cleared, recovered, recycled and made safe. It was in those early days that TRWMP saw the potential for turning cash-for-work crews into longer-term workforces, recyclers as investable livelihoods, municipal sanitation departments as future partners, and dumpsites as future landfills.

Of course not everything was successful in Aceh in the end; a few of the almost 240 new small businesses created failed, some communities did not want temporary dumps removed, a few of the 13 districts governments did not adapt to the opportunities afforded to them, some communities did not want to pay for an improved waste service and some initiatives never took off. Such is the nature of development.

But some rather significant results were achieved: the Wasters built five new engineered landfills, refurbished and upgraded a further 10 sites, provided support to 240 small businesses, cleared 2,000 hectares of rice paddies, and trained thousands of government officials to upgrade and maintain municipal solid waste systems, amongst many other sound achievements.

From Aceh to Tacloban

Back in Tacloban and the rest of the Visayas, a year has passed since Yolanda. Despite a few large ships washed inland still in need of dismantling, thousands of logos, hundreds of UNHCR tents still dotted along the coastline, and many foreigners milling about, many of Yolanda’s scars are unseen.

History will likely be kinder than our reality during those early frantic weeks. Sometimes it was a hard and slow slog to get the results we wanted or indeed some we didn’t expect. I remember a man coming to me each day at the On-Site Operations Coordination Centre (OSOCC) telling me about a Barangay where no aid or machine had been yet. “Can you just come and clean it up? Kids are playing in the debris. It’s actually quite unsafe.” He showed photos. “I’ll put it on the list,” I said. That list grew and grew. We only had so many machines, so many people (and much less funding than in Aceh). Even our peers, like Catholic Relief Services, Tzu-Chi Foundation and the Government of the Philippines, were stretched to the max and going as fast as possible.

Each time typhoon debris was cleared, piles would reappear the next morning; homeowners taking advantage of the clear space to empty their yards, their water-logged homes, their garages. Rinse repeat.

While the streets, side streets, parks, hospitals, schools, homes, and businesses tidied the mess, we were working to figure out where to put it.

In December, we had a conversation with City Hall, which itself was an eerie, leaking building, half torn apart in the high winds and yet pulsating with the energy of a command centre, the handful of bleary-eyed civil servants who put public good before that of their own families, worked round the clock to recover. “Look for where you want a modern new landfill,” we said, pointing to a large map of the area. “This is your opportunity to build something long lasting.” Looking toward a sustainable waste system including an engineered landfill was on the table even as we sat around in the dark, creaking leaking building.

The Santo Nino dump, serving the city’s 300,000 residents and thousands of businesses, was a mess and could not sustain the waste any longer. Permanent housing was destined to go up just next door. The site had to close, but not yet.

Some Aceh lessons were valuable and led to direct results like the interim expansion and rehabilitation of Santo Nino into a site that, with a little TLC, was less damaging to the surrounding environment, less smelly and less vermin ridden.

But others lessons were not heeded and resulted in moments where heads went down. We knew from Aceh that debris can be recycled; wood, metal, concrete. It can all be repurposed and at the same time provide temporary employment. Millions of dollars in raw materials, not to mention the precious environment, were saved by reusing as much of the debris as possible in the reconstruction.

In the Philippines, this success was not replicated in any formal manner; communities still did collect and reuse timber in temporary shelters, metals (though notably not electric power lines – as if stolen the government would not reconnect power) and plastics were collected and sold, but all on an informal basis.  Our recommended sorting/recovery centres, carpentry workshops, and livelihood programmes were stymied by a combination of municipal government (the ultimate decision maker) insistence that debris be moved out of town as soon as possible, and a lack of programme funds and time.

Yolanda was not as calamitous nor as well funded as Aceh, but funding problems were further exacerbated by programming and fundraising being done at arms’ length, in Manila, 1,000 km away from the disaster’s epicentre, by non-technical staff unfamiliar with field issues, in contrast to the approach adopted in Aceh whereby the Wasters were asked to prepare programme documents and budgets with oversight by the country office and then given the opportunity to sell the merits of our programme to donors, allowing an exchange of ideas and targeted identification for funding priorities on both sides.

In Aceh, there were several staging areas, temporary dumpsites, where people could sort through the debris safely for a long time. In the Philippines, this was not replicated. In Aceh, investment into local waste pickers and junk shops yielded enormous results with dramatic impact on the lives of the people around the small and medium enterprises. In one year, 240 SMEs brought in a profit of USD 6.4 million (the programme over three phases and four years only cost USD 3 million). In the Philippines, efforts by the Wasters (led at this point by able technical experts provided by The Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) and their UNDP national colleagues) to invest in local recyclers was met with disinterest by senior management.

A point which leads to a significant lesson learnt: management trust in their waste experts is paramount. In Aceh, almost all government counterparts and heads of agencies, UNDP senior management and other partners were on board and vital to the success of the programme. In the Philippines, this was not always (or often) the case and it led to missed opportunities

Learning from success and failure

Employing lessons learnt isn’t an exact science and the humanitarian community as a whole has a poor reputation of actually learning, despite numerous and voluminous lessons learnt documents. Local cultural context and prior relevant experience of personnel is the key. What worked in Aceh cannot always work elsewhere around the world, but with lessons implanted in mind as the starting point, we can pick up the shovel and make a significant impact, particularly when it seems your whole world has fallen apart after disaster strikes, it certainly seems, feels and looks that way. But as Ridwan reminds us, it does get better.

In the meantime, we keep our records and keep on learning:

What worked in Aceh and then again in the Philippines

  • Local government partnering in the management of debris clearance
  • Cash-for-work as the primary debris removal workforce, supported by rented heavy equipment, as and where necessary
  • Urgent resumption of both medical and municipal waste collection to address public health concerns
  • Demolition of unsafe structures
  • Capacity development of local government sanitation departments
  • In-depth cooperation with UNDAC/ OCHA
  • Upgrading and rehabilitating dumpsites to ensure safe disposal of disaster debris and other wastes

What didn’t work in neither Aceh nor in the Philippines

  • Local government buy-in to large-scale debris recovery and processing facilities at the source e. temporary dumps in towns and cities where debris is found
  • Involvement of the private sector in clean up

What worked only in Aceh so far

  • Local government supervision of heavy equipment and CfW teams
  • Organised waste recovery at the source and staging areas for recycling
  • Systematic planning of integrated long term solid waste management strategies
  • Community buy-in to the principle of household payment for an improved waste service
  • Sustainable waste management livelihoods programme
  • Widespread recycling behavioural changes (and signs of it)
  • Integration of recycling and healthy waste practices in schools
  • Site searches and environmental assessments of appropriate areas
  • Involvement of the private sector in the design/ construction of permanent waste management infrastructure
  • Engagement of local NGOs

What worked only in the Philippines so far

  • Integration of debris clearance resources (human and heavy equipment) to assist cadaver recovery teams and manage mass graves.

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