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After ‘tsunami number one’, countries around the Indian Ocean embrace change.

 

Coco Beach, just outside the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam, is as idyllic as any of the tourist resorts swamped by the Indian Ocean tsunami on 26 December 2004. Its neat curve of pure white sand is sheltered from the breakers by an outcrop of boulders ground to smoothness by the waves.Palm trees tilt in the sea breeze. A little funfair just inland is busy at weekends and on holidays with children who cluster on the swings and rides.

To this day, many Tanzanians do not know that ten people died there in the tsunami, even though it was largely spent by the time it reached their shores more than 6,000 kilometres from the undersea quake’s epicentre.

A short distance along the coast, by pure chance, Moses Onesmo Lyimo happened  to be standing at the window of one of the buildings overlooking the entrance to Dar’s busy harbour when what he remembers as a sudden, violent ebb tide sucked all the moored fishing boats out to sea. Then the water rolled back in again in a vast ripple — the tsunami. Three fishermen died; five boats were lost from Dar and 26 seriously damaged. Lyimo, 62, doesn’t recall exactly what was going through his mind, except that it wasn’t ‘tsunami’. “No one had ever seen such a thing in their lives,” he says. “We actually thought the world was ending.”

Tanzania was not by any means the country worst affected by the 2004 tsunami. But there as elsewhere around the Indian Ocean rim, the wave led to a new culture of prevention taking root. The Tanzania Red Cross National Society’s Ferry Marine branch, of which Lyimo is disaster management officer, is a direct result of the tsunami — it was set up in 2005 to serve the fishing community centred on Dar.

Now two projects help the Tanzania Red Cross build tsunami preparedness — recognition, early warning, safe evacuation — into daily life up and down Tanzania’s fishing coast.

Development at risk
 
Amid the modern emphasis on disaster risk reduction and building back safer, this is but one of a multitude of recent cases of a disaster leading to improvements in the recovery stage. After the 2006 earthquake near the ancient Indonesian city of Yogyakarta, for example, the International Federation’s recovery programme included building thousands of traditional quake-proof bamboo shelters. They were made entirely from local materials and cost less than US$185 each. The design secret lay in eliminating the use of nails: the structure was held together with wooden pegs and
rope, providing much greater flexibility.

“While we cannot prevent natural phenomena such as earthquakes and cyclones, we can limit their impacts,” wrote United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, writing in the 2009 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction. “The scale of any disaster is linked closely to past decisions taken by citizens and governments — or the absence of such decisions. Preemptive risk reduction is the key.”

That report, the first major assessment of disaster risk reduction since the 2000 launch of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), points out that development is “increasingly at risk” from a faltering global economy, food and energy insecurity, conflict, climate change and extreme poverty — the “Solferinos” of the 21st century. But the report presents as its “central message” the idea that “reducing disaster risk can provide a vehicle to reduce poverty, safeguard development and adapt to climate change”.

Invest and act now

June 2009 also saw the second biennial session in Geneva of UNISDR’s Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, the main worldwide forum for governments and other agencies concerned with disaster risk reduction. It established several targets intended to provide “catalysts for cutting deaths and economic losses” from disasters, including 10 per cent of all humanitarian and reconstruction funding for disaster risk reduction by 2010, as well as 30 per cent for climate change adaptation, and major cities in disaster-prone areas to enforce relevant building codes by 2015.

“Achieving targets like these is challenging, but it can be done,” said John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs who chairs the UNISDR partnership. “Even now, some of the world’s poorest countries are reducing the impact of disasters […] What we need is the collective will to invest and act now.”

In the run-up to the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, Holmes also emphasized the rising threat of climate change, “a source of great risk, but at the same time [potentially] a ‘triple win’ — adaptation, disaster risk reduction and poverty reduction”.

A half-decade on from the Indian Ocean tsunami, communities in affected countries are now better able to face future threats from disaster, climate change impacts and disease, many observers believe. For their part, Red Cross Red Crescent recovery programmes have wherever possible striven to increase resilience. Examples include storm-resistant housing, mangrove planting along exposed coastlines like Viet Nam’s, early warning systems, ‘hazard mapping’ to enable safe evacuation for either seismic or climatic risks, as well as extra training in the traditional Red Cross Red Crescent fields of first aid and disaster preparedness.

As programmes are completed and handed over to communities, they are placed in the care of civil society groups that have expanded since the tsunami. “This is the best way to make improvements sustainable,” says Mohammed Mukhier, head of the International Federation’s department of community preparedness and risk reduction. “It provides hope for the future that communities are better able to cope with the threats that will inevitably arise.”

So will we ‘do it better’ next time?

This is the key question asked in another important 2009 report, The Tsunami Legacy, published by the Tsunami Global Lessons Learned Project, of which the International Federation was a key backer.

As is widely acknowledged, the tsunami was a unique event that generated a uniquely generous humanitarian response. Well aware of its exceptional nature, Chimpele Hassan, a veteran 60-year-old Tanzanian fisherman, points out that his village of Msanga Mkuu, 40 kilometres north of the Tanzanian – Mozambican border, was founded some 300 years ago by a Mozambican known to local history only as ‘Malango’. “The tsunami,” says Hassan, “was ‘number one’.” The first. There’d never been anything to compare: only fairly innocuous mawimbis — before 2004 the standard Swahili term for any big wave.

At first sight the 2004 tsunami may not provide a model, particularly with the current global financial crisis. “No other recovery ever had the resources this one had, and I can guarantee [none] ever will,” says Mihir Bhatt of the All-India Disaster Mitigation Institute. “Whatever innovations we think are replicable,” he adds, “have to be at a low-cost level.”

But luckily they may be just that. The lessons of the tsunami “are not necessarily those that depend on […] large amounts of funding,” argues The Tsunami Legacy. Effective leadership and coordination, beginning at the grass-roots level and involving governments and development organizations alike, can go a long way to ensuring sustainable recovery.

The “most important lesson”, the report says, is that disasters themselves should be seen as opportunities for reform and improvement. “What stands out […] is that governments in all five of the most tsunami-affected countries embraced change as a core ethic to confront this catastrophe.” The challenge now is to build the new culture of prevention. Change must be embraced, not for its own sake but because “in a disaster, organizational weaknesses will be severely tested and exposed”.


Tanzania Red Cross National Society Branch Secretary Ali Ismael (left) talks to children about the danger of tsunamis.
©ALEX WYNTER / INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION

 

 

 

 

 

 


Noticeboards educate people about risks and how to prepare
for disaster.
©ALEX WYNTER / INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION


 

 

 

 

 

World Disasters
Report 2009

Focus on early warning, early action

While natural hazards cannot be prevented, they only become disasters because affected communities are vulnerable and unprepared. Early warning systems have been proved beyond doubt to save lives and reduce economic losses at all levels, as the International Federation’s World Disasters Report explains, but they are still not an integral part of disaster management and risk reduction globally. This report argues that early action can do more to reduce loss of life and protect livelihoods than can be achieved through emergency response alone. National governments, donors and all stakeholders must take up this challenge. Read the entire report in English (with summaries in Arabic, French and Spanish) at  www.ifrc.org/publicat/wdr2009/
index.asp?navid=09_03

 

Alex Wynter
Alex Wynter is a journalist and editor based in the United Kingdom.

 

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