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After the big wave

Monday December 26, 2005

By Robert Tickner

Opinion-editorial published by Melbourne's Herald Sun on 26 December 2005

Natural disasters are on the increase. And it's not only the world's developing nations having to shoulder the brunt of nature's fury. That's the lesson of 2005.

Consider the facts. In October a devastating earthquake in Pakistan killed tens of thousands of people and rendered millions homeless. Two months earlier, Hurricane Katrina, paralysing a city in the world's richest and most powerful country, ravaged New Orleans. In West Africa, a food shortage exacerbated by draught and plagues of locusts threatens to wipe out a generation while closer to home, floods in China displaced millions.

Should we have seen this coming? After all, 2004 closed with news of an earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Aceh in Indonesia. The international community, horrified by the scale of destruction, swung into action to help survivors. Across twelve countries in the Indian Ocean, up to 200,000 people died and millions made homeless by a disaster the UN described at the time as the world's worst ever.

Around the world, Red Cross Red Crescent alone raised a staggering $3 billion, to be expended over the next five to ten years to help rehabilitate tsunami-affected communities. By the end of 2005, close to $800 million will have been spent on assisting more than 1.7 million people with vital aid such as food, shelter and medicine.

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, an ambulance service for Aceh Province, as well as housing reconstruction on Nias Island, Indonesia.

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. 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.

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. 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. Other problems hamper the pace of recovery. In Sri Lanka, the first significant allocations of land from the government to Red Cross Red Crescent were only made in mid-July. Although the land has been allocated, final handover of sites has, in many cases, taken time due to various factors including 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. There are other problems too.

For example, 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.

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. And in Sri Lanka we are maintaining and improving transitional housing while permanent homes are built - two examples of the pragmatic approach we're taking to ease the burden of tsunami-affected people.

For now at least, transitional housing represents the most suitable shelter option while permanent houses continue to be constructed.

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

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

Robert Tickner, CEO, Australian Red Cross