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Learning from the tsunami - five years on

News and Press Release
Originally published
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By Patrick Fuller, tsunami communications coordinator, IFRC

When the tsunami struck on Dec 26th 2004, millions of people watched in horror as the full extent of the worst natural disaster in living memory unfolded on their television screens. More than 226,000 people lost their lives across 14 countries and 470,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Now, five years on, the story is a very different one. Communities have recovered and in some cases been entirely rebuilt.

The Red Cross Red Crescent launched a major recovery operation with programmes in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. In the space of five years close to 5 million people have been reached with humanitarian assistance and more than 51,000 permanent houses have been built.

"How are we going to cope?"

Al Panico, head of the IFRC's tsunami unit first joined as head of operation in Sri Lanka in 2005. "My first thoughts on seeing the scale of the devastation were, how are we going to cope with this? We always said this was going to be a marathon and not a sprint and that it would take five years to rebuild."

In Sri Lanka two thirds of the coastline had been hit and the situation was chaotic at best. The immediate priority was to get tents, food and water to the thousands of people camped by the roadside who had lost everything. "Our volunteers played a vital role in helping to avert the risk of a second tragedy", says Tissa Abeywickrama, Chairman of the Movement Task Force with the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society. "We provided thousands of cooked meals to people all the way along the coast. Quick medical care and supplies of clean water meant that there were no outbreaks of disease."

The story in Indonesia was similar but on a bigger scale. The waves had come in higher, 20 metres in some stretches, driving inland for miles and destroying entire settlements along parts of the coast.

"Some of those who came to help had lost homes and family members themselves", says Bob McKerrow, IFRC head of delegation in Jakarta. "Over a three-month period 200 young Indonesian Red Cross volunteers retrieved some 45,000 bodies in Aceh and took them for a proper burial. This was harrowing work."

Operation Recovery

Recovering from such a massive disaster presented huge logistical challenges. Hundreds of skilled staff from all corners of the world were recruited together with thousands of local staff. The tsunami had affected an 800 kilometre strip around the coast of Aceh. Reaching communities meant mobilising boats, planes, helicopters and a fleet of M6 trucks specially imported from Norway that could travel cross-country. Wood was sourced from Finland and steel from Thailand to build over 20,000 high quality shelters in Aceh.

In the Maldives everything had to be taken by ship including 15,000 rainwater-harvesting kits that were installed on 79 islands. Then there were the political challenges. The resurgence of conflict in northern Sri Lanka meant that access to areas was difficult and projects had to be put on hold. Land titles in Indonesia meant that in many areas it took years to be able to start building permanent homes.

"We had to take some risks but this was because the needs were so huge", explains Panico. "This was the biggest reconstruction programme that the Red Cross Red Crescent had ever embarked upon. We were getting into partnerships with government agencies and organisations that we had never worked with before, in areas where we didn't have all the answers."

Catalyst for managing disasters

In the early days of the disaster, coordination between humanitarian organisations, government agencies and people affcectey be the disaster themselves proved difficult. But lessons have since been learnt. The tsunami was a catalyst for improving the way that disasters are now collectively managed. In recent years the UN cluster system came into being, in which the IFRC plays a prominent role. Now there are dedicated teams coordinating the response to disasters in specific sectors such as shelter, water and sanitation and health.

In Aceh, an early challenge emerged when most agencies miscalculated the time it would take to get families into permanent housing. Thousands of people were still living in tents by the end of 2005 which lead to the IFRC stepping in and taking the lead in building 20,000 transitional shelters, many of which are still in use today as shops or annexes to permanent homes.

Rebuilding entirely new communities

The biggest single achievement for the Red Cross Red Crescent has been the permanent housing programme. Various different approaches were used to reconstruct more than 51,000 homes. Contractors were used to build entire communities on resettlement sites provided by governments. In the Maldives the IFRC coordinated the construction of an entire community on Dhuvaafaru an uninhabited island in the Raa Atoll. Six hundred homes, together with infrastructure such as schools, mosques, water and power plants, were built for over 3,000 Maldivians whose former island home was ruined by the tsunami.

Considerable funds were also channelled into 'owner driven' housing schemes. In Sri Lanka more than 17,000 families were provided with cash grants and technical guidance to build or repair their own homes under a unique partnership between the IFRC, UN-Habitat and the World Bank.

Economic life and independence

The focus on 'building back better' has meant looking beyond simply helping someone to build a house. Over 650,000 people now have clean water to drink and better sanitation thanks to water supply plants, distribution pipelines and new wells constructed by the Red Cross Red Crescent. Thousands of people have been helped to get back on their feet through livelihoods support programmes. Over 30,000 households have been reached by asset replacement or enhancement projects. Fishing boats, engines and nets have been replaced and people have been given opportunities to retrain in new vocations.

Over 62,000 households have received livelihoods support grants which have enabled them to start up small businesses such as groceries or market gardens. Many people opted to start livestock and poulty rearing businesses. The expertise built up in the field of livelihoods is now an important part of the Red Cross Red Crescent approach to recovery programming. Helping individuals to cope with the trauma and stress of the tsunami has been another area where the Red Cross Red Crescent has developed considerable experience. Psychosocial support programmes have helped both children and adults to cope with the stress and trauma of the tsunami. Now, over 270,000 people are certified in community based first aid and pyschosocial support.

Allowing families and communities to take action on their own behalf, without becoming dependent on external support, has been one of the most important lessons drawn from the tsunami.

Saving lives before the next disaster strikes

"Even though reconstruction projects are drawing to a close, disaster prone communities still need to be made safer and better prepared", says Al Panico, "a huge amount has been done to improve the technology around early warning systems, but this approach has to go hand in hand with risk reduction programmes at the community level." Making sure that people have the right information, skills and knowledge to take early action and prepare for disasters is a long term priority for Red Cross national societies in countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

These countries now feature community based disaster risk reduction projects focused on training volunteers, developing village disaster risk reduction plans, and improving community capacity in mitigating the risks from disasters. Since the tsunami Over 38,000 people have been trained in vulnerability and capacity assessments or community based disaster management.

"The tsunami operation has given us the highest recognition we ever had from both the public and government", says Indonesian Red Cross Society Secretary General, Iyang D. Sukandar. Since the tsunami and subsequent disaster operations in Indonesia, the Government of Indonesia has recognised the Red Cross as a key member of a newly formed National Disaster Quick Response Team. "We now have skilled volunteers and staff who always ready to help people in any disaster situation throughout Indonesia", Iyang Sukandar says.