WDR 2005 - Chapter 5: Sharing information for tsunami recovery in South Asia

“I don’t want to see another cooking pot – I have as many as I will ever need. I want to know where my family is going to be living in one month’s time!” Parvita, a widow from India’s Tamil Nadu state, summed up what many survivors wanted, three weeks after the tsunami: clear, hard facts about their future.
In India, the tsunami swept away 16,000 people and affected a million more. It took weeks for NGOs to undertake even basic needs assessments along the 1,000 km of affected coastline. The influx of goods, money and NGOs led agencies to compete for space and conceal rather than share information.

The Indian government, supported by the Indian Red Cross, launched a decisive response which won much praise. However, adequate information on the response did not reach village level or marginalized groups, such as dalits (low caste ‘untouchables’).

The unprecedented media coverage provoked a rush to respond. Many agencies overlooked the longer-term risks of inappropriate rehabilitation. Donations of too many boats, for example, could lead to dangerous over-fishing. More experienced NGOs carried out assessments in consultation with local people and encouraged feedback on the impact of their programmes.

In Tamil Nadu, some powerful civil society groups set up local networks to share information, discuss needs and advocate on priority issues with the government. The most effective was the Nagapattinam NGO coordination cell, which began operating three days after the tsunami and attracted 400 NGO members. The cell’s volunteers visited 100 villages each day, to identify gaps in the response and capture people’s priorities. This information was communicated to the government and NGOs to improve the response.

While aid agencies focused on coastal fishermen, others missed out: women who dried and sold fish, dalits who packaged and transported it, basket-weavers, net-repairers, boat-carpenters and inland fishing communities. “People coming in from outside couldn’t see past the destroyed boats and nets to the other groups. The whole economy of the region was destroyed, not just fishing,” said one local activist.

Information-gathering was biased towards men, who often undervalued women’s economic contribution to fishing. But omitting women’s needs had serious implications, particularly for widows who risked sinking into debt.

Caste was another barrier to obtaining information and aid. Dalits complained that fishermen stopped aid reaching them. Experienced aid workers approached marginalized groups directly, never through intermediaries, when gathering information.

The scale of the tsunami’s impact greatly complicated communication. International agencies were slower to share information than local groups. Some key recommendations arising from Tamil Nadu include:

  • Share needs assessments, to promote information-sharing about responses.
  • Strengthen information links with local networks, through simple, low-tech structures.
  • Plan assessments that address the whole community, not just selected households.
  • Consult affected people, especially after the emergency phase.
  •  Support democratic communication, to put the priorities of the most vulnerable at the top of the recovery agenda.

Fifteen hundred kilometres off the Indian mainland are the Andaman and Nicobar islands, which lay directly in the tsunami’s path. “I think 20,000 people died here”, said the islands’ member of parliament in early February. The official toll was 1,927 people dead and 5,555 missing.

Geography complicated the counting. The archipelago is scattered across 800 kilometres and the waves swept many people out to sea. Although the 2001 census recorded 356,152 islanders, local observers put the number closer to 450,000. Military officers admitted the official death toll did not include illegal settlers.

After three months, the death toll was revised upwards to nearly 5,000. But while victims remained missing, their relatives couldn’t claim official compensation – worth US$ 2,300 per person.

Meanwhile, aid organizations had great difficulty accessing the islands to make independent assessments. India’s military responded but initially kept NGOs out. In mid-January there were 71 NGOs waiting to be allowed access to affected islands. By March, restrictions had eased.

In Sri Lanka, the tsunami claimed over 35,000 lives and left half a million people homeless. More women died than men. For most women, learning to swim was culturally taboo. They spent critical minutes gathering their children before fleeing – an often fatal delay. Their traditional clothes made running or swimming near-impossible. Many young, unmarried women died in their homes, reluctant to leave without a male relative.

Immediate relief operations were largely ‘gender blind’, according to women’s groups. Few organizations provided women’s sanitary needs, underwear or appropriate clothing. Pregnant and lactating mothers were insufficiently catered for. Women became nervous sharing living space in shelters with unknown men.

Media interest in women focused on victim stories. News emerged of rape and physical abuse during rescue operations and in temporary shelters. This led to a spate of sensationalist reporting, prompting the state to send police and soldiers to guard camps.

Activists used the media to create awareness of gender equality. Young Asia Television made programmes with tsunami-affected women recounting their stories and proposing solutions to help rebuild lives.

Women’s groups promoted the right of affected women to participate in decision-making. Their efforts may have borne fruit in April, when the government approved a proposal to ensure gender equality and female representation in all relief and rehabilitation mechanisms.

Meanwhile, the tsunami caused deep psychological as well as physical damage. Most people affected by a major disaster will experience an adverse psychological reaction. Between five and 10 per cent may develop long-term problems requiring professional help. With very few local psychiatrists available, how could aid organizations help survivors recover psychologically?

The Danish Red Cross built on its experience during the conflict in northern Sri Lanka to help tsunami survivors. They found greater guilt and grief after the tsunami, because people found it hard to blame the sea for their plight.

Some agencies found that dispelling myths contributed to mental recovery. The Belgian Red Cross explained to survivors the scientific causes behind the tsunami, which helped counter their feeling that the disaster was a punishment from god. A Sri Lankan NGO helped school children cope by placing advertisements in the newspaper, emphasizing how rare tsunamis were and saying that the beach was still a great place to play. Other agencies helped people to tell their story through radio, TV or newspapers.

The American Red Cross’s Joseph Prewitt Diaz and his team have trained 10,000 Red Cross ‘crisis intervention technicians’ across South Asia. Following the tsunami, they encouraged people to become operational again: eating together, continuing daily life or starting work. According to Prewitt Diaz, if people become actively involved in their own well-being, “the victim becomes a victor.”

Information flows smoothly after rough ride in the Maldives

Although just over 100 people perished in the Maldives, the scattered atoll nation was hammered by the tsunami, which affected two-thirds of its 300,000 inhabitants and left 80 islands badly damaged. For a nation spread across 868 kilometres of ocean, the disaster presented a nightmare scenario. Yet the relief operation in the crucial first weeks ran relatively smoothly.

Key to this success was the National Security Service (NSS), the government agency mandated for emergency response. Meanwhile the capital, Malé, was the sole conduit for information sharing and aid distribution, forcing external actors to go through the government.

Detailed information was scarce in the early hours of the emergency. The cell phone network, on which the islands are now heavily reliant, was down and there was little data coming in about damage and casualties. Within hours, the government decided to despatch relief supplies before assessing needs. After a week, telecommunications on all islands were re-established and the picture became much clearer.

Compared to the influx of at least 100 international NGOs in Sri Lanka, there were just seven major international organizations in the Maldives following the disaster. The lack of foreigners overcrowding the response helped improve information sharing and coordination, according to the International Federation’s Qasim Zahid. The information flow from the government to international agencies was quick and, most importantly, accurate. “What information the government had they were sharing with us. They were very open,” said Zahid. Local government also played a key role: island chiefs conducted their own assessments before external organizations arrived.