The outpouring of global sympathy and generous support for victims of the Asian tsunami raises a number of questions for the humanitarian organisations seeking to assist these blighted communities, not least how best to spend the unprecedented amount of money donated.
There is an immense responsibility on organisations like the Red Cross and Red Crescent to spend the money not only transparently, but also effectively. That means not only meeting the immediate humanitarian needs of decimated communities or rebuilding their homes and livelihoods. It will also entail taking steps to ensure that if they are again assailed by the forces of nature, these towns and villages – and vulnerable communities in other parts of the world - will be able to withstand them.
We will be doing these communities an immense disservice if the international aid community does not use a significant proportion of the billions of dollars donated to give them the means to protect themselves against future catastrophes.
Tomorrow, 18 January, the second World Conference on Disaster Reduction (WCDR) begins in the Japanese city of Kobe, itself no stranger to natural disaster. It provides a great opportunity for the world to set in motion processes to ensure that strong preparedness is in place to limit the impact of disasters of this scale in future.
Among the crucial messages that the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies will be delivering at the gathering is the importance of disaster response training and awareness in at-risk communities. We will also be emphasising the urgent need for governments to do more to facilitate international relief efforts by making sure their national laws and rules are compatible with international laws, rules and principles so that much needed assistance can flow smoothly to those who need it.
The very lifeblood of the Red Cross and Red Crescent is its network of community-based volunteers, thousands of whom have been active in tsunami-affected countries since the disaster happened. It was the same story in Iran after the city of Bam was hit by a devastating earthquake exactly one year before the tsunami. Then it was Iranian Red Crescent volunteers who were first on the scene, saving lives and helping the most vulnerable. In disasters big and small, our volunteers are invariably among the first to arrive to offer life-saving first aid, to evacuate people to safer places, or to simply offer a shoulder to cry on.
During his speech to ministers at the tsunami donor conference in Geneva last week, Jan Egeland, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, praised the crucial role national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies play, noting that they are always the first line of defence against suffering and disease when disasters strike.
But, it is not only the volunteers who need to be aware of the dangers and prepared to react. We will be telling the WCDR that while early-warning systems and international solidarity are essential, they will count for little if the population is not well prepared for what nature will inevitably throw at them in future.
We have many examples of the direct value of strong disaster preparedness programmes and how they save lives. One of the clearest is from one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries, Bangladesh, where the annual monsoon and cyclone season devastates large parts of the country and the population.
The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, with the support of its International Federation, learned lessons early, and in 1970 initiated the Red Cross Red Crescent cyclone preparedness programme (CPP).
The CPP can now alert 8 million people living in at-risk coastal areas. The warning system relies on Asia's biggest radio network linking the capital, Dhaka, with 143 radio stations. Alerts are then relayed to 33,000 village-based volunteers, who pass on the warning by megaphone to their communities. The result is that human losses have been reduced to a minimum. In 2004, one of the worst years for decades, 36 million people felt the effect of the flooding, but only 747 lives were lost.
In short, disaster cannot be prevented with infrastructure alone. What is needed is a culture of preparedness and risk reduction in vulnerable communities. The lesson is that without the right knowledge and tools, people will not know how to prepare, how to act and how to help others.
Disaster preparedness is one of the central planks of Red Cross and Red Crescent thinking, and intensified work in this area, in partnership with governments and other organisations, will be a key component of our longer-term programming in the tsunami-affected countries. In these communities, as everywhere, we want community voices to be heard as the culture of preparedness takes root.
As it acts at grassroots level, so the Red Cross and Red Crescent is also advocating for change on the international stage. We want to improve the legal frameworks that can facilitate international assistance in cases of natural disaster. Through its international disaster response laws, rules and principles (IDRL) programme, the International Federation has found that many international legal and other instruments exist, but they are not well known or used.
All too often, urgently needed international disaster response is delayed, or even obstructed, by national legal and regulatory systems which are designed for normal times but are ill-equipped to deal with emergencies. Many of these challenges - such as visa difficulties, problems getting relief goods, medicines, equipment and personnel through customs and immigration, or permission to use telecommunications equipment - happen away from the public eye, and yet they can have a significant impact on relief efforts.
The current tsunami operations have highlighted the complexities of getting relief across borders in the shortest amount of time and with maximum efficiency. Humanitarian organisations are operating simultaneously in 12 countries, each potentially with a different set of customs regulations, or systems for getting approval to bring in aircraft, boats and vehicles.
Since 26 December, we have witnessed a tremendous effort by governments and humanitarian organisations to put systems in place as quickly and efficiently as possible. But trying to do this during a disaster operation, when resources are already stretched to their limit, is extremely challenging.
In Kobe, the International Federation will be reminding governments of the commitments they made at the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in December 2003 to work to review existing disaster management legislation and to improve its compatibility with international laws, rules and principles. And it will be telling them that they should not wait until the next earthquake or tsunami hits.