What is Tsunami Chronicles all about?
The Indian Ocean Tsunami on Boxing Day 2004 was the world’s greatest natural disaster. The isolated Indonesian province of Aceh took the heaviest hit. The tsunami killed nearly quarter of a million people there and left another half million homeless.
Tsunami Chronicles tells the story of Aceh’s recovery. Why did you write it?
I’m a journalist, an author and a management consultant. I’m fascinated with politics and organisational dynamics. So I could hardly help myself. The story of Aceh’s recovery is just such a great yarn. It’s got conflict, intrigue, challenge and triumph, all the elements that make for a good read. As for the story itself, it holds so many lessons for everyone that it would have been a tragedy had I not written it.
What gives you the authority to write the book?
I was an insider, the senior adviser to the Indonesian Government for Aceh’s recovery. So I had a front seat observing the intense political rivalries and management challenges. In fact, I was part of them for a good deal of the time. So are as much a personal tale as a collective one as we met and overcame the tectonic forces of reconstruction.
What is a senior advisor? What was your role?
I directly supported Dr Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, the Indonesian Government minister who led the Aceh recovery program. He is a brilliant manager. I admired him. My job was to help him in every way I could. So I covered just about everything. But what he wanted from me most was to help him interpret and manage the international community. This won me few friends. International donors don’t like consultants like myself getting in their way.
What sets this book apart? Why makes it special?
Tsunami Chronicles is the first detailed assessment of any international disaster recovery program. It goes beyond the usual banalities of partisan reports that skim the surface leaving out all the juicy bits that are politically incorrect. This book explores them in all their glorious and embarrassing detail. It also explains management and leadership in language and through stories that both laymen and practitioners will understand. It links technical foibles with high-level international politics.
What can we learn from Aceh’s experience?
That leadership is the defining quality that delivers either success or failure in collective human endeavour. Good leaders do more than bring people together in teams to produce extraordinary results. They also tame the politics that can rip things apart. That is a key lesson from the entire tsunami series and one I focus on in Book 6 in particular while comparing what we did in Aceh with what happened in other disasters like those in China, Japan, Haiti, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Lessons were taken from Aceh to Haiti with disastrous consequences, for instance. You will only understand what went wrong in Haiti by understanding the connections with Aceh.
Is the story of Aceh’s recovery still relevant?
It sure is. Aceh may have slipped from the headlines since the recovery program ended in April 2009 . But in era of global climate change where natural disasters seem more prevalent than ever, lessons from Aceh’s recovery are still highly relevant. 26 December 2014 marks the tsunami's 10th anniversary. It is time for serious reflection. Tsunami Chronicles offers a sound and serious base for this.
What do you say to anyone who might argue the book is too Indonesia centric?
Anyone who thinks that will have missed the point. The events took place in Indonesia, of course. It’s where I got a first-hand view of how the world responds to global catastrophes. But look beyond that and you’ll see patterns that repeat across many other disasters. I’ve examined them in depth in a single study that exposes important political and organisational lessons current managers and future generations can learn from. Lives could be lost and billions of dollars wasted if we don’t. It’s why I’ve also explained connections with later disasters in Burma, China, Japan and Haiti.
Chronicles is actually a collection of six books. Why didn’t you publish each book separately?
While I have published each as separate ebook, compiling them together as a single print book seemed far more sensible because Tsunami Chronicles is an integrated series of books. Publishing them in a single volume gives the whole story unity and integrity. That’s what I wanted, a meaty story that told the truth about disaster recovery for the first time instead of the usual wishy-washy waffle usually written on the subject.
How long did the book take you to write?
It took me nine years in total, four in Indonesia working on the Aceh recovery program plus another four doing further research and writing as I pieced the whole story together; and when I had completed the first draft, I then spent another year editing and refining the manuscript until I thought it worthy of publication. It was a long slog but I hope a worthwhile one. Writing is difficult, particularly if you want to do it well. It takes enormous dedication and effort to write even one book let alone six in an integrated series that covers all aspects of a massive recovery program as large and complex as Aceh’s.