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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Actor Zac Efron  

Keep your shirt on Zac – we'd all be better for it

Howard Jacobson
Author of Adrian Mole: Sue Townsend  

Errors and Omissions: A protagonist is one thing that doesn’t travel in pairs

Guy Keleny
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit