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The significant impact of disasters disproportionately affects poorer nations, fuelling a demand for disaster aid. But does the aid provided by wealthier countries have a net positive impact on impacted communities?

This week we delve into the challenges of disaster aid and are joined by Professor Simron Singh from the University of Waterloo in Canada. Simron spent ten years researching the indigenous communities in the Nicobar Islands – a small archipelago in the Bay of Bengal. The Nicobarese people lived a very traditional way of life, but following the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, the islands have undergone a significant cultural shift. External donations and disaster aid has introduced other ways of life onto the islands.

Listen in as we speak with Simron about the challenges and complexities of aid and donations following a disaster, as well as how emergency managers can work with communities with a distinctly different culture to their own during the recovery from a disaster.

We’re keen to hear your opinion and any ideas you have for enhancing disaster aid – in a world increasingly exposed to disasters. Share your thoughts on Twitter with #MeMyselfDisaster.

Simron features in Aftermath: The Second Flood, a documentary about the impact of aid in the Nicobar Islands following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami

Click here to download the episode transcript >

Photos credit – Simron Singh

Scene of a pig fight during Panuohonot, or the famous pig festival. It is celebrated on Chowra around November to honor the spirits of the ancestors and to seek abundance.
A canoe race between villages in the ossuary festival that was to honour the former chief of the islands, Rani Ishlon, just a few months before the 2004 tsunami. 
The Nicobarese worship nature and the spirits of the dead. Statues – called a Kareau – are placed at the entrance to protectthe household, and specially invoked in times of crisis.
Villages were completely washed away in a matter of minutes. These are the remains of Trinket village. 
Chowra island is the most traditional island in the archipelago. The villages on that island were completely destroyed.
All the Nicobarese wanted were tools with which they could build their homes and villages, plant food gardens before the onset of the monsoons. In this picture a Nicobari youth is showing me an axe, the most pressing requirement. But tools did not arrive until months after, and when they arrived were of very bad quality to be of much use. 
These shelters were extremely hot inside, from the tropical heat, with little ventilation.
Each family was compensated with a lot of money for loss of family members and property. Money was virtuallyunknown to the Nicobarese prior to the tsunami. The cheques handed out by the government were in the names ofhusbands, considered heads of the household. This created another problem in the Central Nicobars where women oftenheaded the households. This disempowered the women. With the money received, the Nicobarese purchasedtelevisions…. to watch Bollywood films and were soon exposed to a new culture, and the commercials instilled in them a desire for an ever increasing variety of consumer goods, clothes and junk food.
Many bought motorcycles with the money they received. It hurt me to see these changes in such a short time, everything seemed so out of context, like a bad dream. People quarrelled over these goods, and for more compensation money. Everyone felt that others had received more than them, and that the distribution was unfair. Several took to alcoholism, and domestic violence began to be reported. With all the changes brought about by huge amounts of aid over years, the traditional culture, the solidarity and the Nicobarese way of life was severely compromised. 
A mobile network was also introduced, and Nicobarese used some of the cash they received to buy mobile phones. 
Six huge tanks like this one, each with a capacity of one million litres were transported by an Australian non-profit organisation and installed in the highest locations in the archipelago to supply the villages with water. But in the rush to provide aid to the nicobarese no one thought about how these tanks would be filled up with water in the first place and so they remain empty.
The main exchange commodity is copra – dessicated coconuts. When there is a need for market goods, the entire familygets together to pluck and shell coconuts.

Simron Singh

Simron Singh

Simron Singh is a Professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, in the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development. He has spent years living on and researching the Nicobar Islands.