Lena Eskeland in the Maldives
Adesh Tripathee travelled from the highest country in the world to one of the lowest. From the landlocked mountains of Nepal to the Maldives, the scattered atoll nation of 199 inhabited islands, south-west of India.
Adesh was the first International Federation representative to arrive in the Maldives following the tsunami that swept through the Indian Ocean on 26 December. But he was not alone: this trans-regional disaster on a scale not witnessed in living memory triggered an unprecedented response.
While there has been an impressive global response to the tsunami, the assistance provided by neighbouring countries has been vital, no more so than in the Maldives, where the Red Cross and Red Crescent has deployed some of its regional resources.
Relief stocks were quick to arrive. But just as important was the supply of well-trained human resources from the region. The Regional Disaster Response Team (RDRT) was first established in 2002 and there are now 60 trained personnel drawn from six countries in the region: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
From small beginnings, the RDRT has evolved into a highly skilled unit on standby to be deployed to respond to disasters in South Asia.
Adesh arrived in Maldives within 72 hours of the tsunami and, together with RDRT colleagues, who arrived the next day, established an office in a small hotel and made the initial plans for the Red Cross/Crescent involvement in the response.
The 28-year-old is the coordinator for the Nepal Red Cross community-based disaster preparedness programme. He participated in the first RDRT training course organized by the International Federation in South Asia in 2002.
Following the training, he successfully established a community-based disaster preparedness programme in Afghanistan before returning to his native Nepal. His task in the Maldives was as a relief and monitoring delegate, helping to ensure that the tsunami-affected people got the necessary immediate assistance.
Whilst being a RDRT ‘veteran’ and having extensive experience with his own National Society, the deployment to the Maldives was a step into the unknown for Adesh.
“The Maldives is a very different context from Nepal. I had no experience of the sea and had very little time to prepare before leaving,” he says.
But the geographical differences were soon overcome. Adesh spent two months in the Maldives, during which he travelled to 35 islands. The scattered nature of the country meant Adesh could spend nine hours in a boat before reaching an affected island where he was to oversee relief deliveries.
As a result of his constant travelling around the country and work in communities, Adesh now probably knows the Maldives as well as many Maldivians. On his travels, he was welcomed with friendly smiles by everyone from the displaced people in relief camps to the atoll chiefs and the National Security Service officers.
Approach for the future
The tsunami operation has shown that the process of developing a regional disaster response capacity continues to evolve and is gathering momentum. Adesh was one of three RDRT members deployed to the Maldives while seven went to Sri Lanka to help with the tsunami relief operations there.
Alan Bradbury, Programme Coordinator at the International Federation’s South Asia Regional Delegation in Delhi believes the RDRT concept is the way forward.
“The tsunami response seems to have confirmed that this regional approach is the future. People from the region are often more accepted locally as they are felt to understand the local context better. They are also able to arrive a lot quicker in the affected areas,” he says.
The Federation’s regional Disaster Management coordinator, Manish Gangal, agrees, pointing out that the thinking behind the RDRT concept is to utilise the capacity at hand immediately.
“Adesh was available, and was a very good choice. You might think that coming from a mountainous country to a nation of low-lying atolls could be a hindrance, but it wasn’t. My only concern was whether he’d get seasick! His training meant that he was very aware of the vulnerabilities of the people. His South Asian background and broad experience of responding to disaster in the region aided him in responding to the situation and relate to the local people,” Gangal explains.
“Since there is no national society in the Maldives, we selected only those RDRT members who possessed a broad range of disaster relief skills and who had worked in a multi-agency environment before. In addition to this, Adesh’s experience of working at the community level for many years, particularly with volunteers helped him in a new environment,” he says.
No national society
The lack of a national society presented challenges to Adesh and the other Federation personnel but these were quickly addressed.
“The RDRT training gave me the technical skills, but was predicated on working with a national society. As the Maldives has no national society, we had to invent completely different ways of working,” he says.
Despite the lack of a national society, there is no lack of the volunteer spirit. People who were not directly touched by the disaster went to affected islands to help. Host families received displaced people and shared what they had. When the Federation arrived on the islands with relief goods, whole communities turned up to help carry heavy items including two-tonne generators.
“Maldivians have a very good volunteer spirit, but they don’t have a platform,” says Adesh.
“As the country goes from a relief to a development phase, this will be a good opportunity to establish a national society that can promote long-term programmes such as community-based disaster preparedness and first aid, environmental health, youth programmes, and HIV/AIDS awareness.”
Thanks to Adesh and his colleagues, and the efficient and cooperative response from the national authorities, relief has been delivered to thousands of Maldivians. Adesh has now returned to the mountains of Nepal, and cherishes the experience gained from being part of a regional team and its response to the tsunami.