The 2004 Asian tsunami tested the resources of international aid groups to the limit [EPA]

It is hard to believe that almost five years has passed since that horrific, fateful day in December 2004, when over 226,000 lives were lost in a few short hours.

I became a Red Cross volunteer as a college student in 1972 after one of the worst hurricanes in the US and have worked on over a hundred disasters in dozens of countries in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe since then.

TSUNAMI SPECIAL

 

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  Lessons from the tsunami

But none of them quite prepared me for the scale and complexity of the aftermath of the tsunami.

At first I was dispatched as head of the International Federation's tsunami operation in Sri Lanka.

Like countless others my first thoughts on seeing the scale of the devastation were, how are we going to cope with this? Two thirds of the coastline had been hit and the situation was chaotic at best.

The immediate priority was to get tents, food and water to the thousands of people camped by the roadside who had lost everything.

It was the same story in Indonesia but even bigger. The waves had come in higher, 20 metres in some stretches, driving inland for miles and destroying entire settlements along parts of the coast.

Conditions for tsunami survivors in that first year were tough.

In Sri Lanka almost 120,000 homes had been damaged or destroyed and one of our challenges in those early days was managing public expectations, explaining that the rebuilding process would take at least five years and not six months.

Challenges

The scale of the disaster, and the response, were unprecedented [GALLO/GETTY]
Today, the Red Cross/Red Crescent has helped to build over 51,000 homes across Sri Lanka, the Maldives and the Sumatran province of Aceh.

We faced some huge challenges. Logistically we had to bring in hundreds of skilled workers from all corners of the world and employ thousands of local staff.

Destroyed bridges and impassable roads in Aceh meant that we had to important one hundred trucks from Norway that could travel overland.

Barges were brought from Singapore to transport building materials in Maldives and wood was sourced from Finland to build over 20,000 high quality shelters in Aceh.

In the Maldives we had to ship in everything to build houses for 4,000 people plus schools, power, water and sanitation systems on an uninhabited island, Dhuvaafaru. Then there were the political challenges.

Overwhelmed

The resurgence of conflict in northern Sri Lanka meant that access to areas was difficult and projects had to be put on hold. Land titles in Indonesia meant that in many areas it took years to be able to start building permanent homes.

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Government offices in tsunami areas were overwhelmed by the task at hand.

Understandably, they did not have the capacity or structures to manage the thousands of organisations who arrived to help.

The result was often frustrating delays and poor coordination. Aid was duplicated in some areas and tsunami survivors were often not involved or consulted about their needs.

The good news is that we all learned from that and things changed quite quickly in the big scheme of things. The tsunami was a catalyst for improving the way that we manage disasters collectively.

In recent years the UN cluster system came into being which means that there are now dedicated teams coordinating the response to disasters in specific sectors such as shelter, water and sanitation and health.

The IFRC leads the shelter cluster.

This approach was recently put to the test after the September 30 earthquake in Sumatra where temporary shelters went up faster than I have ever seen thanks to an improved system and better coordination.

In my experience, we have been most successful in our tsunami recovery work when we really put communities in the driving seat.

'Owner-driven'

In Sri Lanka the Red Cross developed an 'owner-driven' housing programme giving families cash and technical guidance to help them rebuild their homes.

The Red Cross has helped rebuild thousands of homes across the disaster zone [EPA]
Community development committees were formed to manage the process, get good deals on building supplies, and help people like widows and elderly people build their houses.

Allowing families and communities to take action on their own behalf, without becoming dependent on external support, is one of the most important lessons we learned from the tsunami experience.

But even though reconstruction will end soon, disaster prone communities still need to be made safer and better prepared.

A huge amount has been done to improve the technology around early warning systems, but this approach has to go hand in hand with risk reduction programmes at the community level – which means making sure that people have the right information, skills and knowledge to take early action and prepare for disasters.

This is a long-term job for Red Cross national societies in countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Our focus on building back better has meant looking beyond just helping someone to build a house.

People need an income and we have helped thousands of people get back on their feet by replacing lost assets such as fishing boats and nets, setting up cooperatives, providing cash grants so people can buy livestock, agricultural tools and seedlings.

Experience gained

The tsunami helped to develop our experience in these areas. We have embarked on a wide range of projects with partners who have the complimentary expertise in fields such as micro-credit and agriculture.

In video


Al Jazeera's Step Vaessen reports on some of the lessons learned in the wake of the tsunami

Ten years ago you would not have seen the Red Cross helping Acehnese farmers start prawn farms or cinnamon farmers in Sri Lanka to develop better cultivation methods.

Ten years ago we would not have built massive water supply and treatment plants nor dug kilometres upon kilometres of pipelines that deliver water to new communities.

But that is what building back better means – a holistic approach to recovery.

Over the past five years it has been the stories of many ordinary people that I have encountered that will remain as my most enduring memories of the tsunami.

One of these people is Dina Astita who lost her three boys to the tsunami in the town of Calang in Aceh.

Dina was away at the time and it took her almost 20 days to get back home where she found 90 per cent of the town destroyed.

Dina is now an active member of the Indonesian Red Cross psycho-social support team. She has a one-year-old son and has become a role-model in her community helping others to cope with their stress and emotional difficulties.

For me, people like Dina are the true heroes of the tsunami.

Al Panico has been part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement (IFRC), serving in various roles such as head of the International Federation in Nairobi, Kenya; New Delhi, India; Uganda and Malawi. He has also been vice-president of the American Red Cross.

He currently heads the Federation Tsunami Unit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Source: Al Jazeera