Jerry Talbot, the special representative for the tsunami operation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
In mid November in 2008, a 7.7 magnitude earthquake shook the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, taking four lives, damaging bridges and roads, and forcing 1,000 families from their homes.
Most people around the world didn’t hear about the quake and its aftershocks. It just wasn’t big enough to make the headlines.
Nevertheless, trained Indonesian Red Cross Society volunteers immediately went into action in Sulawesi. They evacuated people from collapsing houses, distributed medicines, blankets and baby kits, and assessed the situation to see what else people needed.
Thank goodness for those local volunteers. Damage to the roads meant they were on their own during the critical first few hours after the disaster. But even if the roads – and ports and airports – are clear, outside aid always comes later. And the funds available always depend on the generosity of donors.
The Sulawesi disaster reminds us that the most important resource in disasters is not money. It is people, people who are trained and committed, people who are prepared to respond when the unthinkable happens. The spirit of volunteerism from within communities at risk means being on the ground before a disaster strikes and being trained to leap into life-saving action at a moment’s notice.
A catastrophe like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami draws an immense profile, billions of dollars of aid, tonnes of relief items and hundreds of foreign aid workers.
With those resources, the Red Cross Red Crescent has been able to run the biggest disaster response operation in its history, with a budget of Swiss francs 3.108 billion and programmes across the Indian Ocean.
The achievements are remarkable, given the diverse range of challenges and complexity thrown up by the disaster. Four years after the disaster, 97 per cent of planned houses have now been completed or are under construction; more than 500,000 people now have access to an improved water source; and 375,000 have been reached by community-based health services.
Yet the tsunami operation is far from normal. Business as usual is responding to a variety of localized, daily shocks that have the potential to undermine years of painstaking social and economic development, and cumulatively affect far greater numbers of people with suffering and hardship. Business as usual in many contexts is dealing with multiple minor disasters, sporadic unrest, outbreaks of disease, ever-higher prices for food and fuel, or creeping climate change.
The best response to these daily shocks is not headlines and donations from afar. The fastest, most appropriate response comes from those who live and work alongside the people affected. It is finding solutions and engaging at the grassroots level.
In the immediate aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, trained Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers – who had often lost loved ones themselves – went to work to help those around them.
That same spirit is alive in Indonesia today after the Sulawesi earthquake. It is alive in the food crisis in the Horn of Africa. It emerged in May 2008 after the Sichuan earthquake and in Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis. And in the ferocious hurricane season in the Americas.
Our work begins long before disaster strikes. Our approach is to reduce the risk of disasters through building a culture of prevention labelled “early warning, early action”. Early warning means proactively analyzing real and potential risks, and preparing communities for the expected - and unexpected - threats that may emerge. Early action means addressing structural vulnerabilities to mitigate those risks and to prevent devastation and suffering.
Acehnese fisherman Zainal Abidin lost his house in the tsunami. He asked the Red Cross Red Crescent to build him a traditional-style wood-frame house on stilts. “I chose this house because I am afraid of another earthquake and tsunami,” he told the Red Cross Red Crescent. “We are afraid of living in a brick house because of earthquakes, but we feel safer in this wooden stilt house because it doesn’t shake when there’s an earthquake.”
Red Cross Red Crescent programmes build the capacity of the community to cope – and ultimately to strengthen development. Our programmes to enhance disaster preparedness and the capacities of our member National Societies change ways of life, attitudes and mindsets at the grass roots level. They encourage people to work together in peace across ethnic, religious and class lines under common Red Cross Red Crescent principles.
Because of the catastrophic nature of the tsunami, the reality is that many people and places will never fully recover. Tragedy cannot be erased with houses, schools and hospitals, jobs, fishing nets or clean water.
The outpouring of generosity after the tsunami, however, has enabled the Red Cross Red Crescent to invest in enhancing communities’ ability to cope with future shocks such as disaster, disease, conflict, inflation or climate change. By building realistic capacity in communities and in local Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteer networks, we work to bring sustainable improvements to people’s lives before, during and after disasters.