Tsunami Anniversary Spotlights the Lessons of Disaster

The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 was a catastrophe of enormous proportions and the greatest natural disaster ever to challenge the United Nations' 60-year-old system of humanitarian assistance, according to a report issued December 22 by the U.N. Foundation marking the one-year anniversary of the disaster.

Many organizations and governments have released year-end summaries on what they have been able to achieve to help the region recover and rebuild in the ensuing year, but the U.N. Foundation – established by U.S. media entrepreneur Ted Turner – goes a step further with its summary, extracting lessons that might help the world respond more effectively to the next catastrophic event.

Its report underscores the importance of making emergency funding available within hours of an event and cites what it expects to become an improvement in the humanitarian emergency response - the U.N. establishment of the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF).

CERF will provide an immediate funding mechanism for assistance as soon as it is needed. (See related article on U.N. Web site.)

Coordination among all assistance agencies, contributions of the private sector, the need for early warning systems, and community consultation are among the other lessons cited by the U.N. Foundation report.  (See related article.)

The report, The Indian Ocean Tsunami: One Year After the Disaster (PDF, 14 pages), is available on the U.N. Foundation’s Web site.

The following terms are used in the report:

CDC - U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
NGO - nongovernmental organizations
UNDP - U.N. Development Program
UNICEF - U.N. Children’s Fund
WHO - World Health Organization

For additional information on recovery from the December 2004 tsunami, see U.S. Response to Tsunami.

An excerpt of the U.N. Foundation report follows:

The Indian Ocean Tsunami: One Year After the Disaster
United Nations Foundation
[Released December 22, 2005]


Learning from the Tsunami: Mitigating Crises in the Future

Funds are needed within hours.

Saving lives in the immediate aftermath of a crisis demands readily available emergency funds to draw from. As did so many others, from governments, businesses, and civil society, UNF moved quickly, providing a $5 million pledge in support of the UN’s tsunami relief and rehabilitation efforts — with $2 million going directly to UN relief coordinators on the ground to help meet the needs of victims.

All actors involved need to coordinate their efforts.

While international mechanisms for humanitarian relief are well established and have performed admirably, these structures are needed for coordination in recovery, which is often a far more complex process. For example, the American Red Cross and UNF worked directly with UNICEF, WHO, and CDC in a coordinated effort to contain the spread of measles and other communicable and deadly diseases. This combined effort of established organizations can join their unique forces and common goals to increase their performance during humanitarian need.

The private sector has an important role in recovery as well as relief.

The response from the global business community is impressive, with approximately $700 million in cash and in-kind donations. UNF worked to connect the resources, products and services of corporations to the UN. For example, UNF is working with Brunswick Corporation, the largest maker of recreational boats in the world, to provide boats for use by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and key NGOs on the ground to monitor and evaluate projects on more than 125 of the 199 inhabited islands of Maldives.

Replacing permanent structures such as schools and homes takes time.

Planning for durable temporary shelter is important and a requirement to ensure a decent standard of accommodations for displaced people. The International Community Foundation and UNF garnered early support and made it easier and more efficient for donors to quickly send their contributions.

Early warning saves lives.

The need to develop a better way of quickly communicating threats from tsunamis and other natural disasters to emergency responders and the public is critical. If people living in areas struck by the Tsunami had more time to react, many lives might have been saved. To be better able to communicate threats quickly, aid organizations should use existing telecommunications infrastructure, including mobile phones and the Internet. The Humanitarian Early Warning Service (HEWS) project, funded by the Vodafone Group Foundation and UNF is working on this, and ensuring the effort is integrated with similar initiatives others are developing.

Communities need to be consulted in the recovery process.

To ensure that rebuilding efforts are locally relevant and sustainable, communities need to be engaged in the recovery process from the start. People in affected areas must be fully involved in the project planning, decision-making and implementation. For example, Coca-Cola and UNF are partnering with UNDP and other UN agencies on a long-term, community-based approach to providing tsunami-hit areas in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia and Maldives with sustainable access to water and sanitation services. As part of the transition from immediate relief to longer-term recovery and reconstruction, UN development experts, Coca-Cola representatives and local community partners conducted an intensive needs assessment to ensure that the resulting partnership initiatives are demand-driven and fully aligned with national government priorities and local community needs.

Looking Beyond the Tsunami:

The Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF)

This progress report indicated clearly that the UN and its partners are able to move quickly, save lives, and alleviate suffering if timely and adequate funding is provided. However, such rapid availability of funding is the exception rather than the rule in humanitarian financing.

While humanitarian aid has increased over recent years, it often arrives late due to the time lag between the appeals from humanitarian organizations, and voluntary, earmarked pledges from donors, and cash transfers. In addition, media attention and aid politicization cause imbalances in the global aid distribution. As a result, while some benefit from fully funded programs, millions of others in neglected or forgotten crises remain in need.

To improve the global humanitarian response, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for an upgraded Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). CERF will speed-up humanitarian responses by providing predictable funding to jumpstart life-saving relief operations.

Initially, CERF will provide up to $500 million through a combination of grants and loans for rapid response initiatives so that UN humanitarian organizations will have guaranteed funds within three to four days of a crisis. CERF will be managed by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and governed by an advisory board of member states.

A mechanism such as CERF could have made a tremendous difference in many complex emergencies and natural disasters over the past year, such as Niger. In February of 2004, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) appealed for $9 million to spray locust larvae (and prevent their spread) in the African Sahel, but received an inadequate response.

In the summer, the locusts multiplied throughout eight countries forcing FAO to revise the appeal to $100 million. The locust infestation, combined with the lack of rain has destroyed the harvest and devastated farms in Niger. As a result, Niger is one of the most extreme examples of a neglected emergency with 3.6 million people on the verge of starvation.