Jerry Talbot: Tsunami warnings save lives, but that's not enough

Risk reduction means building back communities that are stronger and more securen

Share

"I was only thinking of how to get to the hills that time," remembered Leni, a young mother of a three-year old daughter. "I kept remembering the Aceh tsunami while we were running away. The Aceh tsunami taught us a lot. It raised our awareness on earthquakes and tsunamis." On the night of 13 September, when an earthquake off the coast of Sumatra triggered tsunami warnings around the Indian Ocean, people knew what to do.

Like Leni in Indonesia, people living in coastal areas in Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives knew that they needed to get away from the water and find higher ground or shelter. Evacuation drills some admittedly slicker than others swung into action.

Hours passed and the threat abated. In the end, it turned out to be a false alarm, but at least people had been prepared. I had just left the Maldives at the time, having spent two years there as the head of the Red Cross Red Crescent tsunami recovery operation. As I read reports of the response and talked to colleagues in Male, my thoughts inevitably returned to the devastating 2004 tsunami. How many lives would have been saved if early warning systems and evacuation drills had been in place then?

Last month, and Cyclone Sidr smashes into the exposed, low-lying coast of Bangladesh. As the storm snarled its way up the Bay of Bengal, the same early warning network that was called upon in September saw millions of people evacuated from its path. In 1991, a storm of a similar magnitude hit Bangladesh and claimed more than 100,000 lives. This time, because people were warned and because they knew where to go and what to do, the toll was limited to about 3,000 tragic losses.

There's no doubt that early warning and systematic evacuation procedures would have saved many, many thousands of people in December 2004. Tens of thousands would still have been lost, but the figure should never have been as high as it was. But this is not the sum of the issue. Even if only half as many lives were lost to the tsunami, a whole generation of people living around the Bay of Bengal would have still faced a long and difficult recovery. Early warning saves lives, but it does not always protect assets, livelihoods or economies.

The approach that must be adopted by governments and the humanitarian sector has to go beyond ensuring immediate safety. It has to aim at reducing the long-term impact that disasters have on communities. This notion, known within the humanitarian world as disaster risk reduction, extends beyond evacuation plans and disaster drills to seismically resistant houses, risk-aware urban planning, and the development of healthy and sturdy local economies.

This risk-reduction approach has been at the heart of the Red Cross Red Crescent tsunami recovery operation. In his role as the UN's special envoy for tsunami recovery, former US President Bill Clinton urged humanitarian agencies to "build back better". For us, this means building back communities that are stronger and more secure against future threats.

More than 95 per cent of the more than 8,500 houses that we have built so far in Aceh and the Maldives including the 2000 built by the British Red Cross meet or exceed local hazard resistant standards. A huge amount of work has also been done in trying to impart a culture of risk awareness in communities, as well as helping develop knowledge on what can be done to mitigate their impacts. Communities themselves typically know where their vulnerabilities lie. They know, for example, which hillsides are prone to slipping in heavy rains, and which rivers are bound to swell.

In January 2005, just weeks after the tsunami, governments adopted the Hyogo Framework for Action, an international agreement on risk reduction that asked them to make their own communities safer against disasters as well as to increase their investment in global risk-reduction efforts. But this goodwill has yet to translate into concrete action. Investment in disaster risk reduction remains worryingly low. Last year, President Clinton estimated that only 4 per cent of global humanitarian funding went on disaster risk reduction. This has to be dramatically increased. A figure of 10 per cent has to be the goal.

In September, when the earth shook, Leni knew that she had to take her small child and flee. This is just the first step. The challenge for us as an international community is to ensure that there is always somewhere to run, and that when threats recede, that there is somewhere to go back to.

The author is special representative for the tsunami operation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in the new political order

Michael Ashcroft
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power