The December 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake off the coast of Indonesia triggered a massive tsunami that spread throughout the Indian Ocean, leaving nearly 230,000 dead or missing and devastating communities. In response, the international community provided assistance on an unprecedented scale, with in excess of USD 14 billion pledged for the relief and recovery of tsunami-affected countries - with over USD 5.5 billion of this coming from private sources, such as individuals and organisations1.
The tsunami caused immense social, economic and environmental devastation to already poor areas, which in some contexts also had been weakened by years of conflict, and highlighted long-standing disparities of affected populations. While UNICEF's initial response aimed to address the immediate humanitarian needs of those affected by the tsunami, there was also an opportunity to strategically address some of the gaps in access to basic services and other forms of marginalisation, such as populations affected by conflict and/or other forms of discrimination (for example, through HIV and AIDS programmes). In Indonesia, for example, UNICEF strategically targeted both tsunami- and conflict-affected populations in Aceh, with the aim of consolidating peace and the understanding that not doing so would create a potentially unsolvable disparity in access to services.
In addition to the pre-existing contextual and developmental issues, the tsunami recovery programmes faced a number of challenges, including having to incorporate responses to new emergencies - underscoring the non-linear nature of recovery. Among multiple new crises, tsunami-affected areas in Myanmar were again struck by cyclone Nargis in May 2008, affecting an estimated 2.4 million people, and causing considerable damage to schools, health facilities, and water and sanitation infrastructure. Tsunami funding allowed UNICEF to respond immediately, providing humanitarian assistance in tsunami-affected areas that were also hit by the cyclone. Indonesia is prone to natural hazards, and in September 2009 was severely affected by a series of earthquakes in Java and West Sumatra, particularly impacting water and sanitation infrastructure and schools. UNICEF has been working with the Government and partners to provide humanitarian response.
In Sri Lanka, the abrogation of the Cease Fire Agreement in 2008 and subsequent intensified conflict between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) further aggravated the situation of already vulnerable populations and impacted on the pace of tsunami reconstruction efforts in the North and the East of the Country.
In Somalia, the political situation remains fragile and renewed fighting has resulted in a steady deterioration of the security situation and a reduction in humanitarian space.
Despite the constraints, recent evaluations of the impact of UNICEF's response2 found that overall UNICEF had contributed to 'building back better' after the tsunami through the reestablishment and development of infrastructure, improved capacity development, and new or developed policy and programmatic measures aimed at protecting the most vulnerable children and improving their wellbeing. The evaluations also identified some of the remaining challenges, particularly relating to the ongoing need for increased sustainable capacity building for service provision at a decentralised level. The evaluations concluded that although there are significant lessons to be learned as a result of such an unprecedented response, both by UNICEF and the humanitarian community at large, UNICEF has played a key role in restoring the wellbeing of tsunami-affected populations, particularly children, and contributing to their further development.
In the process of implementing the tsunami response and recovery programmes, UNICEF has learned valuable lessons for future humanitarian action. While significant progress has already been made on strengthening systems for coordination, and supply and human resource mobilisation; further work is needed to improve performance monitoring, and to strengthen the integration of early recovery into emergency response planning. Lessons from the tsunami have also fed into the evolving humanitarian reform process, particularly on sectoral coordination through the cluster approach.
Five years on from the tsunami, the majority of UNICEF tsunami programmes have now been completed. Recovery programmes ended in India in 2007, while programmes in Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar drew to a close in 2008, with continuing work handed over to national authorities or integrated into existing programmes. Reconstruction of health centres, schools and water and sanitation systems gathered pace in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Maldives - in particular the sizeable construction of new schools in Aceh and Nias - while being supported by major capacity development initiatives. By end 2009, Somalia and Maldives will integrate any remaining tsunami recovery into ongoing programmes, while in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, UNICEF will continue to support reconstruction activities in health, education and water and sanitation sectors through to end 2010.