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No quick fix for tsunami victims

Tuesday June 28, 2005

Opinion-editorial published by Melbourne's Herald Sun on 28 June 2005

June 26 will mark six months since the Asian quake and tsunamis killed over 200,000 people across twelve countries and rendered millions homeless.

As the emergency phase, which saw no major outbreaks of diseases or food shortages thanks to rapid, swift and timely action by aid groups, winds down, recovery and reconstruction efforts gather pace. But the public and the media seem impatient, asking governments and aid agencies where are the houses, schools and hospitals you promised to build, and why is it taking so long. But should the pace of reconstruction surprise anyone?

The world is still only six-months into the largest humanitarian relief and rehabilitation operation of our time. This disaster affected not just one region or one country, but twelve countries on two continents. Whole communities and their economies were washed away in the disaster. It is going to take many years before tsunami devastated regions get back to pre-tsunami levels of development.

Here in Australia the Red Cross alone raised $105 million, of which $58 million has already been spent or committed, including $24 million so far contributed towards the relief effort of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. This and other contributions enabled us to reach some 840,000 people with vital aid and support, including food, medical assistance, safe water, shelter and clothing. And it is estimated by the end of 2005 we will have assisted more than one million. A good start by any measure.

But from the beginning we clearly advised that recovery would take years, and it was to be a long haul. The Australian Government, Australian Council for International Development and the United Nations agreed with us - there will be, and can be, no quick fixes.

The logistical challenges of rebuilding whole communities from scratch in remote areas are enormous. In Aceh, the worst hit region, roads and airstrips were destroyed as well as wharves and jetties. Much of Aceh's infrastructure was sucked out to sea and must be rebuilt before major reconstruction work can commence. There are other difficulties too.

Before a single house can be built, the authorities need to decide who owns what land and where. And with title deeds destroyed in the disaster, this takes time. For the lucky ones who can prove ownership, there's another problem. A lot of land and property has simply sunk without trace. There's no land to reclaim. Many families need to be relocated before rebuilding can begin. These, and other related issues such as developing master plans for recovery, are the responsibility of the governments of tsunami-affected countries.

As a comparison, take an Australian disaster, such as the recent Canberra bushfires. Today, over two years after the bushfires devastated part of the nation's capital, there are still homes to be rebuilt. And 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.

As an aid organisation with a long track-record of post-disaster recovery, this is not new to the Red Cross. 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 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.

Australian Red Cross has already earmarked tens of millions of dollars donated by the Australian community for programs of rehabilitation and reconstruction. So far, some 30 long-term programs have been identified. In the Maldives for example we will clear away 290,000 cubic metres of tsunami debris and waste from 70 islands, helping recover tourism and fishing industries, two main sources of income for the affected population.

And on Nias island in Indonesia we are working in partnership with Zero to One Foundation, helping to build 254 houses, 9 bridges, 2 schools, 3 clean water supply systems and 1 first aid centre.

The biggest expenditure of funds was always going to come in the longer term recovery stage. Our number one priority is to assist the people affected by this tragedy. It is important we get this response right and that the programs we implement on the ground have a long-lasting and positive impact on people's lives. Imagine if aid organisations rushed to build houses in which people would not want to live. That would be wasteful and an inappropriate use of donor's funds, but it would also have a detrimental effect on the very people we aim to assist.
The Red Cross is uniquely placed to take on the challenge. Today, some 400 expatriate staff including 23 from Australian Red Cross continue to provide aid where it is needed most, assisted by thousands of local volunteers, who have been active since the onset of the disaster. No other aid agency in the world has this grassroots membership. It is one of our strongest assets and the one most likely to benefit those affected. 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 does not plan to rush this process. 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.

- Robert Tickner, CEO, Australian Red Cross