South East Asia: preparedness pays off

تم النشر: 10 يناير 2011 0:00 CET

Cici Riesmasari and Sanjeev Kumar Kafley

After disasters like Mount Merapi in Indonesia or Cyclone Giri in Myanmar, there are all too often many tragic stories of people who were injured or killed, and of communities dealing with the devastation wrought by Mother Nature. However, these two disasters in particular revealed something more positive – the success of risk reduction efforts. Whilst it is difficult to give an accurate figure, it is estimated that thousands of lives were saved and many injuries avoided simply because better disaster preparedness measures were in place.

In Wonodoyo near Mount Merapi, volunteers from the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) and local government officials successfully and calmly evacuated 2,000 people from the village before the eruption. All villagers found safety in the city of Boyolali and, most importantly, there were no casualties or injuries.

It is a similar story in Rakhine State in Myanmar. Myanmar Red Cross volunteers – together with community-based disaster risk management facilitators – used their knowledge and skills to prepare local communities for Cyclone Giri. Their actions helped limit the number of casualties to 45, compared with the 304 deaths following Pathein cyclone, which struck the same area in 1975. This is the smallest number of people to be affected by a cyclone over a 100-year period and it is certainly a different scenario from Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which left 130,000 people either dead or missing.

Everybody knew what to do

As the leader of the Indonesian Red Cross community-based action team, 40-year-old Sarjoko was worried about the 2,000 villagers in Wonodoyo. He and 20 other villagers had been trained through the Red Cross integrated community-based risk reduction programme (ICBRR) – supported by the Danish Red Cross and the IFRC – and when Mount Merapi started spewing hot ash, the team members faced their first real test .

Villagers were first alerted by the community-based early warning system (CBEWS). A siren was activated and villagers knew where to gather and what to essential items to bring. They followed the evacuation instructions given by Red Cross volunteers and local government officials. Some volunteers were in charge of operating the siren; others prepared vehicles to evacuate people and checked the village to ensure no one was left behind.

“We began this programme by involving people from very beginning, to plan and implement risk reduction activities,” says Slamet Haryanto, the Red Cross field coordinator of the ICBRR programme in Boyolali district, where Wonodoyo is located. The volunteers from the programme also went on to become actively involved in the Red Cross emergency response, supporting relief distributions and assisting in field kitchens.

Reduced the number of affected by cyclone

Shortly before Mount Merapi erupted in Indonesia, Cyclone Giri hit Rakhine State in Myanmar. The force of the cyclone was equal to that of Cyclone Nargis. It triggered heavy rainfall, storms and huge tidal surges that reached seven to eight metres in height in coastal areas. Despite the low number of casualties, more than 250,000 people were affected by Cyclone Giri.

Thirty-five-year-old U Kyaw Than Tin, from the Red Cross branch in Myebon, said, “We sent the storm alert to the community and helped evacuate people to safer places. So, although the damage was extensive, we saw that we can drastically reduce casualties with early warning and evacuation.”

Educated and equipped

As Cyclone Giri approached, Meybon branch received a telephone call from the Red Cross in Rakhine to initiate preparedness measures in close coordination with local authorities. Storm alerts were then sent to communities through the radio, TV and telephone. At the same time, people in Yan Htaing village were evacuated.

“Teams trained in community-based disaster risk reduction were mobilized to evacuate villagers away from the coast,” recalls U Mya Sein, a 50-year-old team leader.

Disaster response kits including hand-held microphones, megaphones, life jackets, ropes and other survival equipment were used to evacuate and provide life-saving support to the most vulnerable including the very young and old.

During the past decade, the IFRC has invested an increasing amount of resources and efforts in disaster risk reduction and preparedness. Natural disasters will not go away, but their impact on vulnerable communities can be reduced. There is little doubt that the high levels of preparedness and quick actions of Red Cross volunteers working with their local communities helped to save the lives of thousands in Indonesia and Myanmar.