A tsunami has once again swept Sumatra, making for a reflective mood. Arriving in Sigli, Aceh (the northern tip of Sumatra) at the tail end of the rebuilding efforts post-2004 tsunami, it was genuinely difficult to comprehend the devastation my neighbours had lived through. I’d arrived in a brand new place where life moved on; people got up and rolled with the punches. Never was this more apparent than when, after six months of living there, it was an Indonesian colleague who finally raised the tsunami topic. Over a banana leaf of steaming satay he recounted the story of that day, in a detail that made us flinch. A level of detail that had your ears straining for the faint whisper of the glassy ocean and left you wondering how anyone managed to find the courage to rebuild their fishing livelihoods.
I learnt a lot about human nature that evening. My self-awareness increased dramatically as I realised western-inflicted taboos had prevented me from ever broaching the subject, despite my natural curiosity. And from my Indonesian friends, I understood then what I saw in them every working day; their gift of perspective, the origin driving their understanding that life is too precious to stress about daily trivialities.
As my heart goes out to all those now suffering, the engineer in me is considering the practicalities of overpowering Mother Nature. My role as architect-engineer in Indonesia really was one of jack-of-all-trades. Employing sound engineering knowledge to construct a tsunami- and earthquake-proof school goes without saying. There are many practical measures that can be taken, ones that don’t require calculators; the field is a place for grass-roots technology. Elevating the structure on piloti foundations to alleviate built-up water pressure for example.
Vitally, my job description trespassed far beyond my engineering hard-hat, far off into the realms of biology and education. Whilst the new school needed to be structurally safe, pausing on site for a moment to enjoy the sun setting behind the distant volcano you saw a glowing red reflection on the adjacent fishponds. It was as if the water were alight. What you wouldn’t see though were trees, and this is where it became clear that you have to interrogate everything you see (or sometimes what is missing). Over the past twenty years the Sigli area has seen mass deforestation of seafront mangrove habitats, to make more room for the fishponds the economy depends on for survival. These mangroves though, would provide better protection for my school, in the case of a tsunami, than any man-made intervention could.
And so it was time to study mangrove botany. To research the science behind the different species you find in a mangrove and the practicalities of rearing a new plantation. Even then we hadn’t gone far enough. There would be no point implementing a replanting programme without it being community driven. The trees would not win the battle with the fish farmer’s need for space. We needed to reeducate the local population and facilitate them to choose the mangroves themselves, by equipping them with information about the important safety role mangroves play in dissipating wave energy. And actually, about how the case for mangroves stacks up economically too as many of the plant species aerate the pond-water stimulating a healthier breeding ground for fish.
Reality is not a series of well-defined school subjects; every strand of life weaves together into a giant canvas. Accounting for the bigger picture in every engineering decision we make is imperative. In fact, what we need to employ is perspective.