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Lessons from the epicentre: early warnings and immediate assistance are crucial when natural disasters strike, but donors need to look beyond the immediate relief period to provide meaningful aid.

ON JULY 17,2006, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck the coast of West Java in Indonesia, causing a powerful tsunami that claimed the lives of more than 300 people, and displaced as many as 28,000. Conjuring up images of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, the 2006 tsunami struck with little or no warning from official agencies. Although the scale of the 2006 tsunami paled in comparison to the 2004 tragedy, the recent disaster in West Java highlighted the limitations of the current warning system to protect vulnerable coastal populations in low-income countries.

The Asian tsunami of 2004 elicited an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy and support from the international community, which for a brief period of time included not only the professional purveyors of aid--the UN, the Red Cross and other international aid agencies--but also a wider and more eclectic assortment of Hollywood actors, prime ministers, rock stars and others who felt the need to do something about a tragedy that claimed the lives of an estimated 230,000 people. When it was all added up, the international community had raised an estimated US$14 billion.

Here in Canada, the federal government pledged $425 million for relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts in the Asian region, in addition to an estimated $213 million raised from charitable organizations and members of the Canadian public. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) is now leading the Canadian aid program, directing much of its assistance towards Sri Lanka and Indonesia, which were by far the most badly affected countries.

Early warning systems

Once the worst effects of the disaster were alleviated, international efforts turned towards the development of an early warning system that would detect and communicate the onset of future maritime disasters. The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are working to develop a system that would co-ordinate the activities of national institutions with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) in Hawaii. The PTWC will be co-ordinating a series of experimental trials on the system in late 2006, and will support related efforts to upgrade the system of 70 tidal gauges in the Indian Ocean in order to provide real-time data on storms and tidal surges. Meanwhile, Germany and Indonesia have entered into an agreement to place ten seismic detection buoys in the Indian Ocean, although neither of these was operational at the time of the 2006 tsunami. Australia, India and Thailand have agreed to develop a similar system of buoys along the Sundra Trench, the site of the earthquake that led to the 2004 tsunami.

However, even with the best early warning strategies, it will be difficult to reach remote rural areas and densely populated urban centres. According to Indonesian officials, the Indonesian government received a tsunami bulletin from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre 45 minutes after the 2006 earthquake, but failed to communicate the warning in time. Given the political and infrastructural constraints that such areas face, local warnings and local knowledge are possibly the most important means by which coastal communities can better prepare themselves for disasters of this kind. Eyewitness accounts of the 2004 tsunami suggest that coastal waters receded significantly minutes before the onset of the tsunami. Tragically, many failed to heed the warning, and in fact followed the receding tide into the sea. Better awareness and communication could have saved many lives.

The credibility of early warnings is another important factor. In 1991, for instance, the meteorological department in Bangladesh had an estimated 15 hours to prepare for the arrival of a major cyclone, which still resulted in the loss of an estimated 138,000 lives. Many of these people remained in their homes because they did not trust the official warnings. According to eyewitness accounts, local residents in West Java were also reluctant to leave their homes and businesses after the 2006 tsunami, fearing that an evacuation would lead to the kind of looting that followed another "false" tsunami in May 2006.

Clearly, the process of developing an early warning system is vital, and should receive continuing support from Canada and from other international donor countries. However, the experiences that followed the coastal disasters of 2004 and 2006 have shown that technical fixes are only part of the solution to disaster preparedness and mitigation. Technology should be used alongside longer-term measures to reduce vulnerability, to improve both the credibility of the warning and the effectiveness of the response.

Donor co-ordination

Evaluations of the international community's response to the 2004 tsunami have now been published by a number of aid agencies, including the Asian Development Bank, Oxfam and ActionAid. All are in agreement that the international aid community can and should be commended for its ability to contain the spread of water-borne diseases, and to provide sanitation services, medical supplies, temporary shelter and clean drinking water to the affected populations. However, the evaluations agree that international agencies were far less effective co-ordinating reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts after the immediate relief period.

Experience in highly vulnerable regions, such as eastern India and Bangladesh, has shown the need to develop reliable means of assessing the extent of devastation in affected areas. Co-ordination among national and international agencies continues to be a major obstacle, but many countries are working to change this. Governments in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia have all now established or upgraded their own disaster management agencies.

After an earthquake that killed as many as 20,000 people in the Indian State of Gujarat in 2001, the Government of India reorganized its disaster-management regime. It established a national co-ordination centre, which assumed primary responsibility for the organization of relief efforts. Although the new system is far from perfect, it marks a substantial improvement from the pre-existing system, in which the co-ordination of aid efforts and responsibilities was very poorly defined.

Along similar lines, CIDA has supported a World Bank initiative that will aim to consolidate international relief and reconstruction efforts in the form of a tsunami reconstruction trust fund for Indonesia. And in December 2005, the UN General Assembly voted to establish a US$500 million Central Emergency Relief Fund, which would provide a stable source of funding for humanitarian crises, thereby removing--or at least reducing--the need of the UN and other international agencies to appeal for funding during times of crisis.

The 2004 tsunami called into question the ability of donors and recipients to organize a rapid response to the crisis. Canada's Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), for instance, was strongly criticized in the wake of the tsunami for its slow response during the immediate relief period. Compared with Australia and the United States (whose governments were able to co-ordinate and lead multinational relief efforts within a matter of days), the first DART deployment did not arrive until January 9, 2005--14 days after the onset of the tsunami. Although some of this criticism was overstated and although DART's performance improved during the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, the delay highlighted the challenge of assessing needs and co-ordinating a response in a timely manner.

The challenge of converting national and international initiatives into sustainable development opportunities is substantial, not least because international and domestic policies often create conditions that are highly disfavourable to vulnerable groups and regions. Canada's aid policy, for instance, required until very recently that 90 percent of its emergency food aid be purchased from Canadian sources. Policies of this kind can be deeply destructive when they cause imports to flood local markets and drive down the price of local crops. Such policies can also be highly inefficient, when they require that grains be purchased and shipped from Canada rather than sources closer to the affected area. Although Canada reduced the quota from 90 percent to 50 percent in September 2005, the policy continues to be structured in a way that favours the interests of Canadian farmers, not the affected populations.

Local politics and policies

The politics and policies of recipient countries can be equally destructive. After a major natural disaster, the rehabilitation of lives and livelihoods often requires economic compensation, which is typically carried out by national governments. Compensation in these instances can entail food and cash transfers, as well as the reconstruction of homes, boats, land and other assets lost during the calamity. Alongside the problems of allocating compensation are problems of ascertaining who is eligible for public assistance. Poor people often lack basic forms of entitlement, such as land title or identification cards, which would provide unequivocal evidence that the bearer is entitled to different forms of social assistance. Under such conditions, the ability of powerful groups to capture resources intended for the poor becomes vast.

In its evaluation of the international response to the 2004 tsunami, ActionAid raised a number of concerns about donors, recipient governments and contractors accused of overcrowding displaced populations in temporary shelters and then building replacement homes with inferior or inappropriate materials. The evaluations by Oxfam and ActionAid also criticized a number of governments, including Thailand and India, for using "buffer zones" to move landless communities from coastal areas, thereby facilitating the development of commercial tourism. Such practices help to illustrate a tendency on the part of many governments to compensate the losses of relatively affluent groups, such as companies and landowners, while ignoring the needs of vulnerable groups, such as widows and landless labourers.

The 2004 tsunami also highlighted the challenge of delivering aid in conditions of conflict and contested authority. Canada's relief efforts in Sri Lanka, for instance, were centred in Ampara, which is situated in Tamil Tiger-controlled territory. Likewise, the most badly affected areas in Indonesia were situated in Aceh, a region that has been struggling for decades for independence and that has been economically and infra-structurally isolated from successive political regimes in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.

In both of these instances, ongoing conflict and decades of political neglect exacerbated the challenge of delivering aid to affected communities. Even in countries where ongoing conflicts were not a debilitating factor, international relations and diplomatic politics came into play. Canada's assistance to India, for instance, was greatly constrained by the Indian government's decision in 2003 to suspend aid from a handful of "smaller" donors, including the Canadian government.

NGO capacity

The Asian tsunami exposed a number of problems that reflected the ad hoc nature of humanitarian assistance, as well as the ability of the international aid community to organize a co-ordinated response. Ironically, the generosity of charities, governments and people around the world overwhelmed the ability of many governments and NGOs to implement projects that would help in the relief and reconstruction efforts. At one point in the appeal, Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) stopped accepting donations because it felt it lacked the capacity to absorb--and spend--such a substantial inflow of money.

According to the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition, a number of charities were not as "charitable" as MSF. A few charitable agencies, for example, were criticized for using the tsunami to "brand" their own programs and to attract additional contributions from private sources. Such instances were rare, but reflected a wider tendency on the part of donor agencies to allow spending decisions to be guided by domestic pressure and media coverage, and not by the needs of affected populations.

Reflecting on these and other problems of transparency and accountability, all of the evaluations have recommended that international aid agencies improve their ability to engage with affected communities in the provision of relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Reaching affected communities

The ability to co-ordinate, communicate and even prioritize the types of assistance required becomes especially problematic in the context of a natural disaster. With the spread of water-borne diseases and the sudden devastation of local economies, the ability to reach vulnerable populations quickly is critical. The tsunami on December 26, 2004, struck with such speed and intensity, even the most sophisticated communication and early warning systems would have been unable to mitigate the immediate effects.

Coastal cities, such as Galle in Sri Lanka and Banda Aceh on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, were particularly vulnerable because they are large and very densely populated urban centres with very little of the emergency infrastructure (communications, transportation, emergency response services) that would have been required to deal with the sudden onset of the tsunami.

It is vital to understand the factors that perpetuate poverty and vulnerability in poor and remote coastal areas. Coastal areas in low-income countries tend to attract large numbers of very poor people. This is due in part to the fact that sandy beaches and mangrove forests are of marginal value in primarily agricultural economies. Notwithstanding the development of commercial tourism or coastal aquaculture, land-use values (and therefore property values) remain low, providing an "employer of last resort," in which open access to coastal fishing areas allows for a relatively low-cost source of livelihood and sustenance. As a result, the quality of housing, roads and other forms of public infrastructure tends to be poor, making coastal populations particularly vulnerable to natural disasters like tsunamis, cyclones and flash floods.

Furthering these problems, many coastal communities are physically isolated from political and economic centres, a factor that hinders warnings of impending disaster. The lack of transportation infrastructure in remote rural areas makes it difficult to carry out an effective evacuation, even if word does arrive in time. Consider the particular difficulties of evacuating communities that are only accessible by boat, for example.

Beyond the immediate relief period, the rehabilitation of agriculture, small-scale fishing and other rural sectors is vital. But while this is happening, it is particularly important to provide wage-earning opportunities outside of those sectors that have been devastated by the disaster. Countries like India have a long legacy of providing food or cash in exchange for employment on public works projects, such as road building and home construction, during times of crisis. Programs of this kind have provided an important safety net, which is crucial

when entire economic sectors have been wiped out by natural calamities.

International aid agencies can facilitate this process by directing aid towards the reconstruction of roads, telecommunications and other forms of public infrastructure. Investment of this kind can strengthen local economies in three important ways. First, it reestablishes linkages to markets, schools, hospitals and other vital public institutions. Second, if done properly, it provides wage-earning opportunities for people whose traditional source of livelihood has been devastated by disasters. Finally, it improves communications and access in isolated coastal communities, which may help to mitigate future crises.

Looking forward

Learning from countries in which extreme climatic events are the norm will be important, as will be the development of an early warning system. Improvements in training and communication can enhance the ability of local populations to prepare for and mitigate the effects of natural disasters. In Bangladesh, for instance, non-governmental organizations and local volunteers were instrumental in directing people to shelters during the last major cyclone in 1998, during which the death toll was exceptionally low. Likewise, experience in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh has shown that local communities can play an important role in communicating the nature and extent of damage to higher levels of co-ordination and relief.

International agencies, such as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Co-operative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE) and World University Service of Canada (WUSC), have a long history of working with coastal communities in South and Southeast Asia. UNICEF and CARE, for instance, have worked for years in coastal areas of India and Bangladesh, funding the construction of local cyclone shelters and training local communities in basic evacuation procedures. With CIDA funding, WUSC is now supporting the rehabilitation of lives and livelihoods in areas of Sri Lanka affected by the 2004 tsunami.

Tackling the structures that perpetuate inequality and injustice among individuals, groups and nations is an enormous task, and one that is difficult for international agencies and donors to engineer in the short term. A far more realistic scenario sees aid agencies doing their best to understand the factors that perpetuate poverty and suffering in low-income countries, ensuring that their programs can work within these constraints.

After a major natural disaster, such as the one that struck the Asian region in 2004, people typically want to return to normal, reconstructing the life and livelihood they knew before the disaster. Although no aid program in the world can replace lost assets, traditions and loved ones, a good aid program can do its best to understand the specific needs of governments and affected populations, and undertake efforts which reflect these needs.

Craig Johnson is an associate professor of political science and international development at the University of Guelph. He is currently writing a book on post-development, which will be published by Routledge Press in 2007.

ReliefWeb provides real-time information on humanitarian emergencies and disasters, including maps and funding appeals and an online library of resources for relief workers. It is designed to help the international humanitarian community deliver emergency services more effectively in times of crisis:


Indian Ocean Earthquake

00:58:53 (UTC) December 26, 2004

Epicentre off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia

Magnitude 9.0

Pakistan Earthquake

03:50:38 (UTC) October 8, 2005

Epicentre about 90 km north-northeast of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad

Magnitude 7.6

Java Earthquake

08:19:25 (UTC) July 17, 2006

Epicentre Southern Java about 355 km south of Jakarta

Magnitude 7.2

RELATED ARTICLE: Early Warning that Worked

ON DECEMBER 26, 2004, television viewers around the world were shocked by the devastation caused by the Asian tsunami. In Singapore, Vijayakumar Guneskaran, a native of Nallavadu in the Pondicherry region of southern India, reacted to the unfolding news with a simple reflex that would save lives. He called home.

Fortunately for his family and neighbours, Nallavadu was the site of a "village knowledge centre" set up by India's M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation to test and support information technologies for rural areas. The project is funded by Canada's International Development Research Centre. Acting on Guneskaran's telephone call, villagers broke into the centre and used a loudspeaker--normally used to provide fishers with weather and sea conditions--to broadcast a warning.

Nallavadu was destroyed by the waves, but no lives were lost. The villagers' escape was remarkable, given that, until recently, the Pondicherry region had almost no modern telephone infrastructure.

The knowledge centres are staffed by volunteers, at least half of whom are women. Every evening, they download information on likely wave heights. This information, available on the website of the US Naval Oceanographic Office, is then broadcast throughout the village by loudspeakers. Fishers thus get accurate information on sea conditions before they set out in their wooden boats.

The village knowledge centres were initially set up in five communities to allow villagers to create and access information tailored to their needs--the price and availability of agricultural inputs, for instance, market prices, agricultural and health care information, and road, weather and ocean conditions. By making this information available in databases and through other means, the project is making livelihoods more secure, sustainable and safe, while villagers are developing new skills. According to M.S. Swaminathan, the project has shown that "rural people, particularly women, learn new skills very quickly, and take to technology like fish to water." The very poor are among the major users of the village knowledge centres.

The Swaminathan-led research has fed a groundswell of interest in India. The hope is that a similar model to the one created in Pondicherry can be adapted throughout the country. The National Alliance for Mission 2007 is a grassroots movement that aims to bring the benefits of the knowledge revolution to 600,000 villages by August 15, 2007--the 60th anniversary of India's independence. With a commitment by the Government of India in March 2005 to support Mission 2007 with $28 million, India's rural villages may yet see a new kind of independence.

Mary O'Neill is a communications officer at the International Development Research Centre in Ottawa, Ontario.
During the past decade, disasters in industrialized countries killed an
average of 44 people per event, while disasters in developing countries
killed an average of 300 people each.
--United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs,

Climate change will trigger more intense, frequent and unpredictable
hazards. Across Oceania, while reported disasters have remained constant
between the 1970s and 1990s, their impacts are getting far worse.
Droughts and extreme temperatures affected 71,000 people during the
1970s and 1980s, but over 13 million people in the 1990s. Cyclones
affected 18 times more people in the 1990s than in the 1970s, while
floods and landslides affected nine times more.
--World Disasters Report, International Federation of Red Cross and Red
Crescent Societies, 2002
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Author:Johnson, Craig
Publication:Alternatives Journal
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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