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Tsunami recovery must not be rushed

Thursday June 23, 2005

By Johan Schaar

Opinion-editorial published by The Canberra Times on 23 June 2005

Six months have passed since the tsunami crashed through homes, villages and cities around the Indian Ocean, taking the lives of mothers, fathers and children, killing hopes and futures, destroying communities. An outpouring of generosity and assistance never experienced before has ensured that all survivors could be given temporary shelter and saved from hunger and outbreak of disease. The global demonstration of solidarity with the survivors is something we hope to see repeated for all those suffering in other little-recognised crises around the world.

Now that recovery and reconstruction after the tsunami are getting under way, we want to see people move into their new homes, communities resume their livelihoods and children back into their rebuilt schools. We realize that many health workers, teachers and local government officials are dead, particularly in Aceh, but with all the funds collected and pledged, it should be possible for communities to get back on their feet soon.

But we must not let our urge to see funds spent quickly force the recovery process to deliver errors and unsustainable results. While there is no excuse for governments, donors or aid organizations to drag their feet, there is equally no excuse for compromising on basic principles for sustainable recovery. Organisations who rush to spend too quickly, without proper planning and community consultation, risk delivering unsustainable, inappropriate assistance, including building houses where people do not want to live.

So what are these principles? First of all, we have pledged to 'build back better'. Cities in Aceh were built in such a way that people trying to escape from the tsunami were trapped in blind alleys. Beaches had been cleared of protective mangrove forests. Houses collapsed on their inhabitants when the earthquakes struck. Reconstruction must leave communities in a safer state. That requires careful planning, sometimes using new and innovative methods.

What is appropriate in Turkey or Iran may not work in Indonesia or Sri Lanka -- we must tailor our responses to specific needs. If we believe mangrove plantations will assist with 'tsunami-proofing' communities, we must find a way to make such projects economically attractive. All of these models for reconstruction are much better worked out in the places where the tsunami has struck and in consultation with the people it has affected.

Second, local communities and governments must be in charge. They need to register land titles for homes and agricultural land where documents have been lost and where sometimes ownership was unclear even before the tsunami. Homeless families must take an active part in designing and building their homes so that they meet their needs and are culturally appropriate. They should be disability-friendly. Women need to take a lead in these decisions. And re-establishing sustainable livelihoods means that not everybody will become fishermen. Some will no longer wish to return to their places of origin but prefer to be relocated. All of this means providing conditions for profound consultations with affected communities. For them, taking charge in rebuilding their lives and livelihoods is the best recovery for their broken hearts and souls.

And third, whole communities are being rebuilt. This means the simultaneous building of homes, roads, schools and health clinics, the provision of safe water and sanitation facilities as well as the necessary services. Again, this requires comprehensive, locally based planning. For us as outsiders, it means providing encouragement, material and financial help and advice, but also time and space for these community-based processes to take their proper course.

Finally, the transition from being traditionally resource-poor communities to the sudden massive influx of funding presents significant challenges. These include the scarcity of local expertise and the necessary raw-materials. There is a danger of soaring prices and the creation of cycles of aid dependence. Rainforests could be cut down. If we ignore these risks, we will bring further damage to communities that have suffered enough.

As we remember all those who died six months ago, our solidarity with those who survived is best expressed when we allow them to drive the recovery effort. This should be about their needs, not ours.

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