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Tsunami 12 months on...

Speech to the Fundraising Institute of Australia
by Robert Tickner, CEO Australian Red Cross

Sydney, February 28th 2006

Colleagues and friends,

Thank you for this opportunity to talk to you here today on the role of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in the aftermath of the tsunami. It was a catastrophic event to which the world responded with unprecedented generosity. And while the aid effort has, for the most part, been successful, we have learned and continue to learn, many valuable lessons.

On Sunday, 26 December 2004, a powerful earthquake of a magnitude of 9.0 Richter scale erupted under the Indian Ocean. It triggered huge waves, which travelled as fast as a jet plane for thousands of kilometres in every direction before crashing ashore to strike coastal towns on two continents.

In a few hours, the tsunami took more than 200,000 lives and affected another 2.3 million people in 12 countries. Towns were reduced to muddy rubble, families were torn apart and livelihoods wiped out.

Overnight the little-known word 'tsunami' became a household name. The scale of the disaster, touching so many countries so far apart, was unprecedented.

Within hours, Red Cross relief networks mobilised. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies sent off Field Assessment and Coordination Teams to the worst affected countries of Indonesian and Sri Lanka.

Despite the harrowing scenes, the Red Cross teams made up of highly trained and experienced aid workers, specialists in fields such as health, communications, logistics, as well as water and sanitation, worked alongside staff and volunteers from local Red Cross Red Crescent Societies to help dispense life saving aid such as food, shelter and medicine while at the same time working to locate the worst hit, often remote communities, in desperate need of help. In Indonesia and Sri Lanka, three Australian Red Cross aid workers - specialists in health and communications- were part of those initial assessment teams.

Aid supplies, personnel and disaster response equipment poured into tsunami-affected areas. For example Red Cross established a 100-bed field hospital in Banda Aceh. Housed in dozens of tents, located some 15 minutes from the airport, on the outskirts of town in the shadow of the province's main football stadium, it included an X-ray room, two operating theatres, a sterilisation area and an intensive care unit, as well as a centre for waterborne diseases, a blood bank and laboratory.

And within days of the disaster, Red Cross Red Crescent had sent Emergency Response Units or ERUs , to the worst-affected areas to provide expertise and assistance with basic health care, water and sanitation, telecommunications and logistics.

Despatched on enormous cargo carrying planes, ERUs never return to their country of origin. In Teunom, for example, along the tsunami-ravaged west coast of Aceh in Indonesia, Red Cross set up a basic health care ERU, a sort of improvised hospital. Massive waves had wiped the town from the map, killing 4,000 people and leaving thousands more homeless.

Most of the buildings were destroyed, including the public health centre. The huge surge of water, mud and sand also took the lives of 16 of its staff, including doctors and nurses.

In the days following the disaster, surviving Indonesian health workers toiled long hours to meet the basic needs of the local population. But they were overwhelmed. Help from Red Cross was sought.

Once the ERU was set up, Red Cross doctors and nurses worked alongside surviving local health staff to care for up to 200 patients a day, mainly for traumas such as fractures and infected wounds. It was basic health care. But essential if nasty infections, which could lead to further complications or even amputations, were to be avoided.

Eventually the health care unit was handed over to local doctors and nurses so that they might continue to care for the people long after the last of the international aid workers had returned to their homes and families.

Just think about this for a moment. In a matter of days, Red Cross had established a working medical facility in a place so remote, that at the time, Red Cross helicopter pilots had trouble finding the town.

This is one example of many that illustrates the unique capacity of Red Cross Red Crescent to respond in times of disaster. In tsunami-affected countries, from Indonesia to Sri Lanka and Malaysia to Thailand, the emergency response was proportionate in size, scope and reach.

In Aceh and elsewhere, we got aid to people. As much as possible, we focused our considerable efforts on getting to those hard-to-reach areas, where we had to assume that many had not received much in the way of outside assistance.

Relief boats, trucks and helicopters helped us to distribute food, as well as plastic sheets, cooking pots, matches, candles and other emergency items to tens of thousands of families.

Today in Aceh, 550,000 people regularly receive food and non-food items from Red Cross and Red Crescent - more than 113,000 people are still supported with water and sanitation and more than 95,000 people have received basic or preventive health care from mobile Red Cross clinics or the specialised health units, like the one in Teunom.

In Sri Lanka and elsewhere it's a similar story. Hundreds of international as well as local staff and volunteers from Sri Lanka Red Cross continue to work to meet the needs of the affected communities. For example the construction of the first 2,200 houses of an estimated 15,000 is underway. Meanwhile up to 3 million litres of drinking water is produced and delivered weekly to 50,000 people.

In the days that followed the disaster local Red Cross branches mobilised their volunteers to provide vital and immediate assistance. And worldwide, the offices of the International Red Cross and National Societies such as Australian Red Cross worked round the clock to continue to plan their response and launch emergency appeals.

What's not talked about in the media at least is that the rapid, swift and timely response by aid groups helped prevent major outbreaks of water-borne diseases, as well as major epidemics that could otherwise have threatened thousands of lives. Major food shortages were also averted. This shows the emergency response was done well and carried out appropriately in what were logistically extremely difficult conditions.

At its peak, the relief operation involved hundreds of international Red Cross Red Crescent Red Crescent aid workers as well as thousands of local volunteers and staff who were there right from the very beginning. National Societies from Australia, Japan, United Arab Emirates, Britain, Ireland, Finland, Denmark, America, Canada, Malaysia, Singapore, China, South Korea, as well as many others, too numerous to mention, sent personnel and relief supplies to tsunami-affected countries in their hour of need.

Volunteering is at the heart of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and in all the affected countries, thousands of volunteers from National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies gave their time and energy selflessly to assist those people most hurt by the tsunami.

Well-trained and organised Red Cross volunteers were quick to respond under extremely difficult and challenging circumstances. Yet, as ready as they were, the scope and scale of the tsunami devastation was an extreme test of their abilities, not least, because many Red Cross staff and volunteers perished in the tsunami wave. Despite their shock and grief, surviving Red Cross members immediately began to help the victims - an extraordinary demonstration of dedication and commitment.

Volunteers from Red Cross carried out many different tasks to support the victims of the tsunami. The saddest of all those tasks was that of retrieving dead bodies from fields and beneath debris.

Working in teams of 30 to 40, these volunteers helped retrieve tens of thousands of corpses, toiling long hours in the terrible heat and humidity.

Volunteers, not much older than Australian Year 12 students, spent their days walking around to locate bodies, then placing them in body bags, and loading them into a truck or Red Cross ambulance.

They also saved lives through first aid, distributed relief supplies, helped purify drinking water, assisted people to trace missing relatives, and helped families clear up the rubble that used to be their homes. They were a true inspiration and the real heroes of this humanitarian operation.

But around the world there was unprecedented support as people continued to offer donations.

Worldwide Red Cross Red Crescent raised a staggering $3 billion. Much of this will be spent over the next five years to help rehabilitate tsunami-affected communities.

But by the end of 2005 alone, almost $800 million had been spent on assisting more than 1.7 million tsunami-affected people with vital aid such as food, shelter and medicine.

The funds raised are allowing Red Cross and Red Crescent to help people rebuild their lives, from constructing new homes to funding new livelihood opportunities, and to continue providing food, water and essential supplies, until local economies are rebuilt.

The Red Cross Red Crescent pledge is to 'build back better.' To leave people in a safer state than before. To let local communities and governments decide what they want. To re-establish sustainable livelihoods, perhaps new ones. And to ensure that the sudden influx of funding does not distort local markets of raw materials, prices and expertise.

Here in Australia, Red Cross raised close to $117 million - one third of all tsunami funds collected by Australian aid agencies.

Of these funds, $103.4 million (or around 88%) has been spent or allocated on 44 long-term rehabilitation and recovery programs such as disposing of 290,000 cubic metres of tsunami debris and waste in the Maldives as well as a desalination program to bring clean water to tens of thousands of people whose precious water sources were contaminated with salty water when the tsunami struck. Other Australian Red Cross projects include an ambulance service for Aceh Province, and construction on Nias Island in Indonesia where we are helping to build 254 houses, 9 bridges, 2 schools, 3 clean water supply systems and a first aid centre.

Some are multi-million dollar projects likely to take years to complete. Others are smaller, such as cleaning wells and rainwater harvesting but no less vital to ensure tsunami-affected communities can once again live with dignity.

But despite the progress so far, there's understandable frustration about the time it's taking to build the thousands of houses, hundreds of schools and dozens of hospitals that are desperately needed.

I share these concerns. People in tsunami-affected countries are justifiably anxious to return to their normal lives with permanent homes, jobs, and personal security. Donors and survivors alike want to see this happen as quickly as is practical.

But let's be clear. It will take years to rebuild much of the area affected by the disaster. The Australian Government, Australian Council for International Development and the United Nations agree with us - there will be, and can be, no quick fixes.

Roads are gone, including main arteries for transport. Entire areas of land where homes had been are now permanently underwater. And with title deeds destroyed, proving who owned what land and where is still a significant hurdle for the authorities to overcome.

To rebuild destroyed villages or towns requires everything to happen simultaneously to help establish social services, put the necessary infrastructure in place such as roads, schools, houses, hospitals, water and sanitation, while ensuring all the time that affected people are at the centre of decision-making. The challenges of coordinating this work across governments, UN, aid agencies and affected communities are enormous.

Imagine entirely rebuilding Ballarat or Newcastle. Rebuilding tsunami-affected communities cannot be done in a matter of months, nor should it be rushed. Former US President Clinton, the United Nation's special envoy for tsunami recovery, has cautioned that building back better does not mean building back faster. Reconstruction and rehabilitation will take years.

Even the most powerful nations would struggle to rebuild after a disaster of this magnitude. In the United States, with its unparalleled resources, many people are still living in tents more than a year after Hurricane Ivan in Florida. And when Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst natural disasters in US history, tore up and flooded New Orleans, US President George W Bush warned up to 200,000 families might be forced to remain in emergency accommodation for the next three to five years. All this in a country which has well-developed infrastructure, heavy machinery and expertise in place. Imagine doing all this in a country where such services are not readily available or have more limited capability.

Make no mistake. Last year's tsunami is in every measurable way many times worse than these tragedies. We are dealing with massive challenges in 12 countries, several of them poor and conflict-ridden.

As an aid organisation with a long track-record of post-disaster recovery, this is not new to Red Cross Red Crescent. We are just one player, working with other stakeholders, and very importantly with relevant authorities, to ensure we get the response right. In Indonesia, the International Red Cross signed a landmark agreement with the key government authority to rebuild 22,000 houses, over 140 health centres and some 110 schools and child-care centres. And in Sri Lanka, the government agreement enables the Red Cross to build up to 15,000 homes, rehabilitate 34 health facilities in 11 affected districts and provide livelihood and psychological support to thousands of people. These are just some of the ways the global Red Cross and Red Crescent plans to spend $1.5 billion between now and 2010.

It is too soon to judge the success of the recovery effort. But thanks to the generosity of the people, businesses, organisations and governments who gave to help those in need, tsunami-affected communities will return to pre-tsunami levels of development.

It's a considerable challenge however to build back better, as well as construct and repair tens of thousands of homes in countries normally constructing around 5,000 to 16,000 houses per year. And there are other problems. In Sri Lanka, the first significant allocations of land from the government to Red Cross Red Crescent were only made in mid-July and final handover of sites has, in many cases been delayed further because of ongoing acquisition of some of the sites by the government, verification of title deeds, property disputes and incomplete lists of beneficiaries.

The construction process has been further aggravated by a shortage of building materials and skilled labour for construction.

In Jaffna, Sri Lanka, Australian Red Cross is investing $12 million in a holistic housing project that includes construction of over 500 houses, water and sanitation systems, as well as income generation projects such as vocational training and brick building for up to 2,600 people. But before setting a single foundation stone, we have had to clear the area of unexploded ordinance. The Jaffna peninsula, situated in the country's disputed northern territories, is heavily mined.

There are many problems yet there's no room for excuses. Our aim is to assist tsunami survivors live with dignity while land issues are resolved, allowing for proper and lasting reconstruction. It is not acceptable for people to continue to endure flimsy tented accommodation when other, more suitable, shelter solutions exist.

In Aceh, Red Cross has begun importing and allocating 27,000 hardwearing large new family tents, as well as sturdier mid-term temporary housing units to some 80,000 people.

To avoid outbreak of disease and to improve the standards of people living in temporary living centres, Australian Red Cross is investing $250,000 to upgrade living conditions for approximately 800 families in six Aceh Basar based camps.

We are fortunate to have assistance from AusAID and from a remarkable woman called Chut Yusnar.

Chut Yusnar is an engineer and mother of two who lost her parents, two brothers and a sister-in-law as well as nieces and nephews to the tsunami. In total, she and her husband lost eleven members of their family. Their house was also destroyed along with all their possessions, paperwork and legal documentation - an all too familiar story in Aceh, which makes proving who owned what land and where very difficult.

Chut Yusnar wants to do something for those who are still in need. She is a great asset to Australian Red Cross - both parties fortunate to have found one another.

In my first year as CEO of Australian Red Cross, I have travelled to Sri Lanka, Aceh and Maldives to witness first hand the scale of the devastation, as well as to gain an appreciation of the enormous challenges that lie ahead for the international community in rebuilding tsunami-affected communities.

I have met with people whose lives and livelihoods were destroyed by the disaster. I have seen the conditions many tsunami survivors have to endure. It's heartbreaking to know some of those affected still rely on aid to live. And we must do all we can to restore human dignity and hope.

But we must not rush this process. That could do more harm than good. We have taken the first steps in what will be a very long process to rebuild the lives, livelihoods and economies of affected communities. We stated right from the start that this process would take years, and this is certainly the case.

We must not compromise on the principles that drive sustainable recovery; working with affected communities and including them in decision making; providing aid equally; being patient while land title difficulties are resolved and avoiding haste, which forces piece-meal, poor quality outcomes for tsunami-affected people such as building houses that no-one wants to live in.

We have experience spanning decades in disaster management and development. And we know the best results are achieved through careful and considered planning. This is not a race to spend funds fast, but a challenge to leave the affected communities in a better and safer condition than where they were before the tsunami. We will work alongside tsunami-affected communities for as long as it takes to empower vulnerable people, and restore hope as well as dignity.

We're committed to getting it right to repay the community's trust in supporting the Red Cross. And we owe it to the people affected by this terrible tragedy to get it right for the long-term.

The global humanitarian community has never been faced with such a challenge to not only deliver an appropriate needs driven response that will vary country to country, but also other dynamics such as the unprecedented generosity of the public.

Never have we worked with so many players in so many countries with this amount of available resources. I am very proud of all the work that has already been achieved to help those affected by this disaster.

The Red Cross was uniquely placed to take on the challenge.

No other aid agency in the world has our grassroots is one of our strongest assets. Wherever we work in the world, our programs are implemented for the community through the local Red Cross, whose members are drawn from the communities we aim to assist.

Red Cross Red Crescent will always be ready to act when and where disaster strikes. This is the message heard by our beneficiaries all over the world. Our neutral, impartial, transparent and accountable grass-roots organisation is always ready and prepared to help the most vulnerable, wherever they may be.

But even if we can be proud of our tsunami response, there are lessons we have learned.

We must continue working on coordination. The unprecedented number of organisations that responded to the emergency created an extraordinary challenge.

Even though the response must be immediate, it must be done from a shared understanding of what and where the needs are, to avoid duplication and gaps. The world is still better prepared for humanitarian emergencies than for large recovery operations, which are highly complex. There is a need to learn from this and other experiences so there is clearer agreement on roles and responsibilities and recovery can be better coordinated.

These issues are made more complex by the fact that the tsunami hit countries with bottlenecks in human, institutional and material resources and capacities, with unresolved conflicts and political tension. Common standards of good governance, accountability and transparency must be followed.

At the same time, humanitarian assistance must continue to the millions who will not be back on their feet until their economies function again. Their active involvement and participation is critical. Their hopes and aspirations must guide us all. The best way of alleviating their grief is to make them the agents of their own recovery.

Sustainable recovery must combine the long-term planning and leadership of governments, supported by the UN and international finance institutions, with the quick and flexible response that civil society organisations close to communities can offer. For those struck by the tsunami, it is of less interest if individual organisations did a good job if the final outcome is fragmented and unsustainable. This must be a joint effort.

That is why the initiative of former President Clinton, as the UN Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, to form a Global Consortium of all involved participants should be acknowledged and applauded. Its promotion of accountability and transparency in the use of funds, encouragement of in-country coordination, and maintenance of an inclusive dialogue on recovery policy and strategy, may lead to a new kind of international recovery mechanism on which we can build for the future.

In addition, the pressure for early results must not lead us to compromise on quality. It is understandable that the survivors and their governments are impatient to see the displaced in permanent homes and communities rebuilt. It is also understandable that donors want to see their funds put to good use as quickly as possible. But the risk of making mistakes through shortcuts in the recovery process is very high. The experience from this and all other large natural disasters shows that recovery takes time. If driven as an emergency operation, without sufficient planning and consultation with those affected, mistakes will be made. There are too many examples of a job only half done, where people are still in what was supposed to be temporary shelter after a natural disaster.

It is our view that much of the public who donated funds for tsunami recovery has its own experience of investing in and building new homes. It recognises the time needed for planning and adjustments, and the importance of being in the lead when taking decisions that will affect a family's existence for years to come. Tsunami recovery should be no different. That would be to fail our donors as well as the survivors.

Finally, humanitarian and recovery funding must not be a zero-sum game, where aid for one disaster is aid denied to another. It has been stated that the 'over-funded' tsunami operation should share resources with victims of other crises. For example, the difficulty in attracting sufficient resources to help the victims of the earthquake in Pakistan is in stark contrast to the outpouring of generosity from governments and the public for tsunami survivors.

It seems that we have become so used to the chronic shortage of funds to assist people in dire need, that we lose perspective when we for once may have sufficient funds for a comprehensive engagement. We look at the problem from the wrong end. The challenge is for governments to ensure that state budgets have enough flexibility to handle a year with an exceptional number of major disasters. The problem is not too much money for the tsunami, it is too little for all the other crises where we must help.

The response to the Tsunami disaster shows what the world can do - we urge the same solidarity with the victims of underreported or neglected disasters, such as the food crisis in the Sahel region of west Africa or the ongoing humanitarian emergency in the western Sudanese province of Darfur, those which fail to capture the attention of the media or the public's imagination.

For every disaster reported by international media in this region there are ten others that go unnoticed and underreported but where the local Red Cross Red Crescent intervenes to save lives.

In conclusion, the international community must learn to coordinate for recovery, to allow recovery to take the time needed for sustainable results, and to ensure that stricken communities do not have to compete with each other to receive the assistance they have a right to expect.

A decade from now, I hope we are remembered in tsunami-affected communities for building back better, as well as giving hope and opportunity where once there was only despair.

Thank you.