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Five years later, the tsunami-affected teach the world how to build back better

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On December 26, 2004, no one was prepared for the gigantic seismic sea wave that ravished the coasts of 14 countries in Asia, killing nearly one-quarter of a million people and displacing more than 2 million. The disaster kick-started the largest aid effort of all times. Now, the lessons learned from this response help prevent and recover from natural disasters - not only in Asia but in all parts of the world. The Indian Ocean tsunami showed the power of community involvement in the reconstruction process.

Five years ago, the world witnessed the largest relief response in history. Within days of the disaster, governments, UNDP, partner agencies and relief workers provided temporary shelter, food and other basic goods to the tsunami-affected, working with the communities in the recovery process. With tens of thousands in provisional shelters in the tsunami countries, the organizations involved in the recovery and reconstruction efforts faced a dilemma: 'build back faster' - or 'build back better'? The tsunami recovery efforts showed the importance of 'building back better', in a community-led effort that best suited the peoples' needs.

"The only way to redeem that kind of loss is to empower and dignify those people who have suffered," President Bill Clinton, who was the UN Special Envoy for the Tsunami, said. "That is 'building back better' - but it also means letting them define it."

Hakan Bjorkman, who was the UNDP deputy resident representative in Thailand at the time of the tsunami, remembers that "there was a great rush to get people back into permanent housing, but that rush could create problems, preventing a meaningful discussion with people and with the communities. It took a little bit longer but the results were much better. And this is the essence of the 'build back better' concept: to have people involved in the reconstruction."

Shop keepers, fishermen, women...the community got together to plan and build their new homes - and lives. A strong grassroots movement was born.

"People are able to get things done," Somsook Boonyabancha, from the Asian Coalition of Housing Rights, said. "Once you give them the opportunity to get together and think of solutions...there is enormous passion."

Since the 2004 Indian Tsunami, there has been a flurry of activity by governments, international agencies and civil society organizations in order to create national and regional early warning systems. Early detection buoys have been placed in the Indian Ocean, and 168 governments have resolved to reduce multi-hazard risks. In addition, 250,000 new permanent houses and over 100 air and seaports have been built, thousands of schools constructed and hundreds of hospitals rehabilitated.

Documenting the lessons

The UNDP, other UN Agencies, the Agency for Reconstruction and Rehabilitation of Aceh and Nias (BRR) and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies decided to make a documentary to tell the story of the recovery. The idea was to show the community involvement and how peoples' lives changed after the tsunami,

In cooperation with Discovery Channel, the documentary explores the mending and rebuilding of lives and communities in the hard-hit areas in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Maldives. The one-hour film captures the challenges, innovations and breakthroughs over the past five years of recovery.

The film also shows that many groups that were once marginalized - especially women - experienced increased roles in their communities due to the recovery process. Throughout the region, UNDP and partners sponsored job trainings, with a special focus on women. In Chennai, southeast coast of India, in partnership with Action Aid, UNDP trained women in processing fish. The group produced pickled seafood and learned marketing and enterprise skills. Many of these women had their first paid jobs as a result of the post-tsunami recovery efforts.

Lessons learned

In addition to the documentary, in April 2009, a report on the lessons learned of the tsunami recovery was launched in New York. The report "The Tsunami Legacy: Innovation, Breakthroughs and Change" stresses that involving local communities in the recovery process is as instrumental as installing high-tech early warning systems.

The Report also highlights the importance of building a 'road map' to reduce disaster risks, including the community in the prevention, response and management phases. The 'road map' should include:

- Policy, institutional mandates and institutional development;

- Hazard vulnerability and risk assessment;

- Tsunami and multi-hazard early warning system;

- Preparedness and response plans;

- Mitigation and integration of disaster risk reduction into development planning;

- Community-based disaster risk management; and

- Public awareness, education and training.

The lessons from the recovery work and coordination with partners are an ongoing process. The BRR Knowledge Centre (KNOW) , established in partnership with UNDP, is an active online platform for information sharing on the reconstruction in Aceh and Nias (2005-09). Students, aid workers and governments have permanent access to tsunami rehabilitation and recovery data.

The world's collective vow is to never be caught off guard again.