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

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

"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