Five years ago, on 26 December 2004, a massive earthquake off the coast of Sumatra created a tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean. Millions of people around the world watched in horror as the aftermath of the biggest single natural disaster in living memory unfolded on their television screens. Almost 230,000 people lost their lives across 14 countries.
In Indonesia’s Aceh province, entire communities were wiped off the map. Constructing sturdier new homes and settlements with electricity, clean water and good sanitation is one step towards what is known as “building back better”, but genuine recovery requires a more inclusive approach that addresses people’s wider needs as they see them.
In its wake came extraordinary generosity. Over the past five years the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has channelled public donations into recovery programmes that have supported almost 5 million people across the four worst affected countries - Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Maldives. The immense task of reconstructing homes, schools and hospitals is almost complete, allowing us to see more clearly what we have learned from the tsunami and how it has fundamentally changed the way we respond to large-scale disasters.
Building back better means helping to create safer and more resilient communities. Reducing risks as effectively as possible requires the full participation of communities exposed to potential disasters.
Since the tsunami, the Red Cross Red Crescent has helped to create community-based risk reduction programmes that are now active in more than 265 communities across Aceh. These risk reduction teams map the hazards faced in their communities and carry out small-scale prevention and mitigation activities such as improving drainage systems to prevent flooding during the monsoon. They also learn emergency first aid skills and involve all generations in their community in evacuation drills. Empowering communities to take preventive action on their own behalf, without being dependent on external support, is one of the clear, unalterable lessons learned from the tsunami experience.
On average, the Asia Pacific region experiences 41 per cent of recorded global disaster events. Two to three large scale disasters now take place every two years. This situation is compounded by an increasing number of localized smaller scale disasters that have increased the total number of disasters per month from an average of 21 in 2004 to 51 in 2008.
Since the tsunami, the Red Cross Red Crescent has responded to no fewer than five major earthquakes that have struck in ‘the Ring of Fire’, a highly active seismic zone running through the Indonesian archipelago.
When the latest quake struck the city of Padang in West Sumatra on October 1, a trained network of radio operators swung into action keeping vital lines of communication open between the Indonesian Red Cross headquarters in Jakarta and its field offices in the quake zone. Pre-positioned emergency relief items in the area meant that help was immediately at hand for survivors and 200 ‘Satgana’ (disaster response) volunteers fanned out into affected areas to assess the urgent needs. Psychosocial support volunteers who had been trained in Aceh also arrived in Padang to help adults and children cope with the trauma. Much of this effective disaster response capacity comes directly from our learning following the tsunami.
Perhaps the most important lesson that the tsunami has taught us is that systematic risk reduction efforts depends on building strong working partnerships between all stakeholders – communities, local and national government, governmental and non-governmental organizations and the private sector. The legacy of the tsunami is that the IFRC has moved significantly closer to this goal.
The key lesson still needs to be acted upon. Governments, donors, the media and the general public must increase their support and promote preventive action such as early warning systems.
But early warning systems alone are not enough. While these help people to be aware of a disaster, true risk reduction can only be achieved by working and building the knowledge and skills of the people who live in ‘at risk’ communities. This is where the strength of the Red Cross Red Crescent lies. Our volunteers come from these communities and are there before, during and after disasters.
The incredible public generosity that the tsunami uncovered must be harnessed to invest in helping communities at risk adapt to known weather and seismic related threats but also to new disasters emerging from changing climate patterns. At the same time international donors must honour their commitments to increase funding towards risk reduction initiatives.
Responding effectively to disasters will always be essential but nothing is more effective than getting people out of harm’s way in the first place. Indeed is this not our moral obligation to those whose lives were taken by the tsunami five years ago? Let that be the great lesson of the tsunami – act early and save lives.