Kevin Rumsey just can’t get warm.
Layered long johns are a dismal substitute for the balmy Indonesian climate this Yukoner has been experiencing for the last six months.
“I was working at ground zero for the tsunami,” said the federal water strategist, warming up over coffee.
On an internship for his master’s degree, Rumsey was part of the ravaged country’s colossal reconstruction effort.
“I was working with one of hundreds of tsunami NGOs engaged in a massive rebuilding like the world hasn’t seen for a long, long time,” he said.
“And it was a sharkfest.”
Corruption is ubiquitous in the world of international relief and aid, said Rumsey.
“Indonesia is the fourth most corrupt country in the world. And this massive rebuilding and spending spree has opened opportunities for fingers to go into honey pots.”
Vying for public attention and sponsorship, hundreds of NGOs involved in the rebuilding effort are competing, he said.
“It’s all about image — ‘Look at what we’re doing, keep sending us money.’”
However, most Canadian organizations refused to take part in the corruption, added Rumsey.
“And like all good Canadians they wear their heart on their sleeve.”
Rumsey was working for a Vancouver-based NGO responsible for assessing waste- and water-system sustainability in Indonesia.
“NGOs are going in and rebuilding communities, and they might have the best, most sustainable plan for water and drainage on paper, but no one follows up,” he said.
“And lots of the contractors are not squeaky clean.”
One NGO might build the homes and another might bring in water, he said.
“But sometimes they come in and don’t ask the local people what they want.
“They’re building toilets in people’s homes in rural areas where they’ve never used a toilet.”
And septic systems are being installed, but there is no infrastructure to maintain them, or pump them out, he said.
“To this day there’s no plan in place to deal with septic sludge (in Indonesia).
“They install the systems and will worry about the sustainability later.”
NGOs set up camps with water and latrines for the hundreds of thousands of displaced people, added Rumsey.
“But because there is no co-ordinating body, no one returned to pick up garbage, repair leaking water tanks or clean and maintain the latrines, which are all overflowing.
“So there’s rashes and kids with diarrhea.”
And the NGOs supplying these camps with food will eventually withdraw aid, because it all has to come to a stop at some point, he said, remembering one camp where the rice supply had just been cut off.
“When I got there little babies were sick, and people wanted to borrow the truck to go to town for supplies and wanted money.
“Experiences like this tend to harden you,” said Rumsey.
“But children are my weakness.”
For two weeks, Rumsey would walk past a young girl begging in the street in Aceh.
She was eight years old, and every morning he would give her snacks, fruit, cookies or balloons.
Then he moved.
But three weeks before Rumsey left, he saw her on a different street.
“She recognized me right away,” he said.
By then he’d learned the language, and asked her name, age and what she wanted to be.
A teacher, she said.
Rumsey gave her $5, the equivalent of about four days of begging.
“The scale of the destruction is truly mind-boggling,” said Rumsey, whose Indonesian driver recounted how he was carried two kilometres by the tsunami before being thrown through a window.
It wiped out waste stations, gas stations and chemical plants, contaminating all the groundwater, he said.
And it destroyed all deeds to land and all health records.
“Two years after the tsunami, that killed 140,000 people, there are still 40,000 people missing and half a million people displaced,” he added.
“And only 40 per cent of the homes have been rebuilt to date.”
With more than $7.1 billion in Indonesian relief, it’s the world’s the largest humanitarian effort, said Rumsey.
“And the mantra is to build back better.
“But NGOs are tripping over their own tails; it’s chaos — it’s like trying to herd cats.”
While there, Rumsey worked with liaisons from the World Health Organization, the United Nations and UNICEF.
“And UNICEF most impressed me,” said Rumsey.
“I’d love to go work for them.”
But right now, after working for six months without pay, Rumsey has his nose to the grindstone.
“I have to put my life back together and reflect on what I experienced,” he said.