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Tsunami 10 years on: Giving birth during a natural disaster 16 Dec 2014

Living poorly and yet having everything taken away from you by a natural disaster can be deemed impossible. Throw a newborn birth into the mix and you have Mrs. Erlina Wati, who tells us a story of how she succeeded in giving birth to a healthy boy on 26 December 2004 despite running for her life from the Tsunami.

Erlina Wati’s family comprises of four members, and at that time she was pregnant with her third child. Her husband worked as a full-time driver and her daughters were still in pre-school age when the tsunami struck their village and took everything they owned with it.

At 8am, Erlina was at home with her daughters when she experienced a slight tremor which she didn't pay too much attention to. Soon after, a strong earthquake shook her entire home which caused her and her family to evacuate outside of their house.  By then, everyone in her village had left their homes and she wasn't sure if her neighbours were safe and sound.

Soon after, she noticed people running inland and towards the hills and scurrying for the top. Something did not feel right and within minutes, her neighbourhood was getting flooded and the water was rising steadily and increasingly. Panic ensued but with the help of bystanders, she was able to evacuate into a small building that acted as a makeshift shelter. By 8:15am, Erlina’s water broke and her labour process unexpectedly began. What is usually a happy moment turned into despair and worry for Erlina.

“I thought I was going to die. There was no medicine. I don’t know how my baby would have lived. I prayed to Allah (God) and left it up to him.”

Prior to the disaster, many community members claimed that the term “tsunami” was unheard of and this experience was described to be a phenomenon which led to many assuming that this was the “end of the world”.

With the help of others at the makeshift evacuation centre and a piece of sarong (cloth used to wrap around one’s body or waist), Erlina was able to give birth to Rizqil, her third child. The next step was to ensure his survival. The next 5 months proved to be the hardest. Erlina was unable to produce proper milk and without the access to midwives and health facilities, Rizqil and his mother recovered in harsh and unsanitary conditions.

Ten years on, Erlina tells us: “…change is really now everywhere. There are more and more buildings (development) and they are getting taller. The sports centre I work in as an instructor is also getting more luxurious. I have never seen this kind of infrastructure before.”

But the big question is - are the communities better prepared for a disaster? Erlina explains: “There are sirens now in place near the seaside and anything more than 5 on the richter scale will set it off. There are evacuation buildings that are in place near the coastal communities as well.  These systems were never in place before the Tsunami happened.”

The tsunami response made an important contribution to the upgrading of infrastructure and capacity building of health staff which have contributed to an improvement in services and in both Aceh Province and Sri Lanka the health service is now better prepared to respond to disasters.
A community health worker from Aceh province explains the current situation: “One of the blessings of the tsunami was that many of the survivors were able to improve their situation; before the disaster, people rented boats but after it they were given their own; before, they were staying in a small hut but after they received a house.” 
A senior health centre staff member in Aceh province tells us that, "Before the tsunami we weren’t open 24 hours and had far fewer facilities…In addition to a larger staff and more facilities, we have also received training from Save the Children and feel more confident in the skills that we have. We now have twice as many patients as we had before the tsunami.”

Save the Children's report - Tsunami ten years on: Stories of Change - captures the change through the eyes and voices of affected communities in Sri Lanka and Indonesia (Aceh province).