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Tsunami recovery progress 18 months on

Wednesday June 28, 2006

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

It is now 18 months since the tsunami crashed onto shores around the Indian Ocean, the most dramatic natural disaster in modern times. Attention has moved elsewhere, but for the people affected, the tsunami is not over. What is happening to the devastated communities, are people getting back on their feet?

After a slow first year, there is now real and visible progress in the Herculean recovery effort. In Sri Lanka, people are moving into homes that they themselves have built. In the Maldives, new houses are being equipped with rainwater harvesting kits and connected to new sewage systems to protect fragile freshwater resources. And timber obtained from sustainable overseas forestry is arriving in Aceh, preventing reconstruction from jeopardising Indonesia's pristine rainforest.

How is the immense generosity and compassion of millions of people around the world translated into a sustainable project for recovery and reconstruction? Let me point to three guiding principles that we, other agencies and governments in the affected countries must apply.

Recovery must be multi-faceted

First, recovery and reconstruction is not one-dimensional, it is physical, psychological, economic and environmental. The best results come when agencies manage to consider these in a holistic manner, through the design of their own activities or through collaboration with others. A prime example, mentioned above, is when the homeless are in charge of rebuilding their homes, with financial and material support and technical supervision. It is quicker, costs less and builds more local skills and capacities than when outside contractors are used. Perhaps most importantly, instead of waiting passively, people are helped to overcome the trauma of the tsunami as they literally take charge of rebuilding their own lives.

Importance of local consultation

Second, recovery and reconstruction must be aligned with local plans and priorities. One day all international agencies will have left, what remains must be managed and maintained by local governments and organisations. What is not adapted to their aspirations, norms and practices will not be sustained. That does not mean a passive acceptance of what is contrary to new and sound approaches. As an example, the Sri Lankan Government decided quickly after the tsunami to enforce uninhabited coastal buffer zones with the well-intended purpose of protecting coastal communities from future tsunamis. The inevitable consequence was however that fisher folk had to be relocated to inland areas, far from their livelihoods. A constructive dialogue with the government contributed to a relaxation of the original policy and a new disaster management plan requiring only limited relocation of vulnerable communities.


Third, striving for accountability is central. It is not enough to know how many houses, hospitals or kilometres of road that have been rebuilt. Physical results tell us little about the health, psychological status or income of the survivors of the tsunami. It gives us no information on whether the interests of women are protected as land titles and other assets are distributed, or if the special needs of the elderly and disabled are being addressed. For this reason, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, WHO and UNDP are working with governments in five of the affected countries to establish a system of surveys and indicators that will tell us whether recovery is delivering the right results for those affected or whether we should redesign and change our programmes. Ultimately, this will enable us to be fully responsible and accountable for the outcome of our efforts.

A common purpose

Based on these experiences, something new and encouraging now seems to emerge. We notice an increasing sense of shared and common purpose among agencies and governments, leading to new and promising partnerships. This found a tangible expression earlier in 2006, when nine international organisations, including the World Bank, the World Meteorological Organisation and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, presented a joint offer of technical and advisory support to states around the Indian Ocean, with the purpose of establishing an early warning system. Each organisation would provide a critical element that only when combined with those of others would make a real difference in protecting communities at risk, not only from tsunamis but against the range of other and more frequent natural hazards. For the Red Cross and Red Crescent, this meant assisting our national members in developing risk-aware and disaster-prepared communities. Already, several governments have formally accepted our offer.

Recovery and reconstruction continues. Our responsibility is to transform the trust invested in us into safer and better protected communities. Our donors, governments and the survivors of the tsunami have the right to expect that from us.