"The first was the wave itself, the second was the flood of money and aid, and the third was when the aid agencies withdrew," he said.
The devastating Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 killed more than 230,000 people in 14 countries and triggered a massive four-year international aid and reconstruction effort involving 463 non-government agencies.
Bill Nicol in Banda Aceh after the tsunami.
But a decade on, the $7.5 billion estimated spend had one crucial flaw, the ANU academic says, it failed to rebuild the livelihoods of people in Aceh especially in the area most affected by the tsunami along the west coast.
AdvertisementWhile he praised the emergency response and most of the infrastructure projects, Dr McCarthy said much of the effort was only temporary and through visits and interviews with villagers in Aceh he has found about 55 per cent of people experience a hunger season each year in the still largely impoverished area.
But Bill Nicol, a fellow Canberran and former advisor to the leader of the Indonesian Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency "tsunami tsar" Dr Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, disagreed, saying the recovery efforts had many unseen positive social outcomes.
Dr Kuntoro Mangkusubroto the director of the government rehabilitation agency for Aceh and Nias, and the Indonesian government's Minister for tsunami recovery in Aceh and Nias after the Boxing Day tsunami. Photo: Bill Nicol
"We were given a mandate of four years to rebuild the fundamentals of the place and I think did so brilliantly with enormous difficulties," Mr Nicol said.
"We were rebuilding in a war zone which very few people seem to think about these days."
But Dr McCarthy said the post-tsunami aid did not do enough to reconstruct sectors the Acehnese relied on for their livelihoods including rice production, fish ponds and cash crops planted in the hills, neglected over the years during the conflict.
Dr McCarthy said aid-funded infrastructure projects created an enormous amount of jobs, but when the money dried up the Acehnese were left with "nice infrastructure" and few work opportunities.
He believes at least part of the billions in post-tsunami aid money should have been set aside in an endowment fund to be spent in a more "systematic way" after infrastructure was up and running.
Mr Nicol agreed, but said the organisations were under pressure to spend the money as soon as possible on specific projects.
"People are only interested in the first six to twelve months [after a disaster] then ... the political spotlight moves on," he said.
"They're not going to give money to roll over into some other fund; they need to get political credits for what they do."
A decade on, Dr McCarthy said some villagers live in "disintegrating" homes designed to be temporary, while in other areas there were "ghost villages" of empty, abandoned houses rebuilt in the wrong place.
"You find all these mishaps but you do find some villages quite beautifully rebuilt, there's an enormous amount of variation," he said.
"There was all this discussion at the time of 'building back better'… I think we have to go in there with a great deal of humility and not think about building back better."
Mr Nicol admitted some of the 140,000 homes rebuilt during the recovery were "rubbish", but said most were of a high standard and defended the policy of "fast track management" where things were built ahead of design to have a more immediate impact.
"We didn't just rebuild we actually gave houses to the poor and dispossessed … they are now landowners with an asset," he said.
The recovery effort also led to the "major step forward" of overhauling land ownership laws in Aceh giving women joint titles for the first time.
Mr Nicol said it was "laughable" to suggest those behind the four-year recovery effort did not rebuild livelihoods.
"It wasn't our job to then consolidate ... it was all handed over to local government," he said.
"We rebuilt the capacity of government, it's their job to then pick up the pieces and keep going."
Dr McCarthy said in the post-conflict time local government, overwhelmed with donors, would have benefited from long term partnerships rather than short term community development efforts.
But he said many of the Acehnese villagers he had interviewed blamed themselves rather than donors.
"They weren't really in the mental state to think about the sustainability of their livelihoods … until after the donors went home," he said.
"They were traumatised because in many of these places up to 60 per cent of the villagers had died in the tsunami."
Villagers were often given money just for showing up at workshops or meetings hosted by competiting donor organisations, but they failed to engage in activities to set up their futures, something many now regret.
"There were too many people with good intentions … a lot of the NGOs were new to the area and had a poor understanding of the situation. They didn't speak Indonesian," Dr McCarthy said.
"Aceh has its own culture; it's very different to other areas of Indonesia that was clearly a problem."
Mr Nicol had similar criticisms of some of the NGOs and donor agencies.
Since his four-year stint in Aceh ended, Mr Nicol said he had only revisited the area once, but has visited several other disaster zones including Haiti and the Philippines to observe the international recovery efforts.
He believes lessons can be learnt from the Aceh experience including the importance of good leadership, resources, expertise and political backing.
While technological developments like drones and better telecommunications have advanced disaster recovery, he said at a management level many bureaucracies were "constipated by their own culture" and failed to understand the importance of paying the right person for the job.
Dr McCarthy said the Aceh experience showed how easy it was to be carried away with the immediate need to fix things and forget about the long term.
But he said many aid workers and researchers had told him it was a scenario that continued to repeat itself in other international disaster zones.