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Learning lessons from the tsunami

Tuesday December 20, 2005

By Johan Schaar

Opinion-editorial published by The Canberra Times on 20 December 2005

This has been a year of natural disasters. Starting as the full and horrific impact of the tsunami sunk in, it draws to a close as we struggle to assist the survivors of the earthquake in India and Pakistan. And in-between, hurricanes, storms, floods and landslides, all taking their highest toll among the poorest and least protected communities.

Even if the aid community can be satisfied in parts with its response, it must continuously improve to help save lives and rebuild shattered livelihoods. The trend seems clear - natural disasters are on the increase. So what is there to learn from this year?

First, there was no ready-made structure to coordinate recovery when the tsunami struck. The challenge was - and remains - tremendous. Coastal regions were completely destroyed, requiring the simultaneous rebuilding of ports, roads and social infrastructure. In areas where land ownership records - and in some areas land itself - were lost to the sea, plots for private homes must be found and titles issued. Water and sanitation must be provided; destroyed farmland must be cleared. Preventive and curative health services must function throughout the recovery effort even where local staff were killed.

All of 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 including all actors involved should be acknowledged and learned from. In its promotion of accountability and transparency in the use of funds, encouraging in-country coordination, and maintaining an inclusive dialogue on recovery policy and strategy, we may have a new kind of international recovery mechanism on which we can build for the future.

Second, 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 with communities rebuilt. It is also understandable that donors want to see their funds come to good use as quickly as possible. But as should be evident from the description of the challenge above, the risk of making mistakes through shortcuts in the recovery process is very high. The experience from all other large natural disasters is 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 recognizes 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.

And third, 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. The cry for resources to help the victims of the earthquake in Pakistan is a stark contrast to the outpouring of generosity from governments and the public for tsunami survivors.

The fact that it is doubtful whether there actually are sufficient resources for all the affected countries to "build back better" is unimportant for the principle under discussion. 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 such flexibility that we can handle a year with an exceptional number of major disasters. The problem is not too much money for the tsunami, it is one of too little for all the other crises where we must help.

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.

Johan Schaar -- Special Representative for the Tsunami Operation -- International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies