The true legacy of the tsunami operation

On 26 December 2004, a massive earthquake off the coast of Sumatra created a tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean. Almost 230,000 people lost their lives across 14 countries.

Millions of people around the world watched in horror as the aftermath of the biggest single natural disaster in living memory unfolded on their television screens. In its wake came extraordinary generosity. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has channelled public donations into recovery programmes that have supported
over 8 million people across the four worst-affected countries - Indonesia,the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

The enormous scale and scope of the operation has meant that thousands of people are now living in stronger homes supported by a more sustainable economic and social foundation. More than 59,000 houses have been built or are being completed. Over 661,000 people now have clean water to drink. More than 94,000 households have boats, fishing nets, agricultural tools or have used cash grants to help them recover their livelihoods. 363 hospitals and clinics that have been built or rehabilitated.172 schools have been constructed. 

These achievements would not have been possible without two unique features of the Red Cross Red Crescent: grassroots networks active before, during and after the disaster, coupled with the funds and expertise of more than 100 sister Red Cross or Red Crescent societies from around the globe.

After the tsunami, the Red Cross Red Crescent was entrusted with an unprecedented outpouring of donations totalling more than 3.1 billion Swiss francs, approximately one-fifth of all global funds given to assist families and communities after this disaster. Initial activities focused on meeting people’s emergency needs. Later, the emphasis evolved into rebuilding communities and livelihoods.

Woven throughout the operation has been the obligation to leave a legacy of safer communities and a stronger Red Cross or Red Crescent embedded with them. We aimed to build back better - and we have.

In the Maldives, Red Cross Red Crescent assistance in the aftermath of the tsunami provided an opportunity for a new National Society to be established. In August 2009, the newly established Maldivian Red Crescent held its first general assembly. Vulnerable people in the Maldives now have a new champion.

Over the past nine years, the Red Cross Red Crescent has been consistently accountable and transparent, not only to the public, who gave 69 per cent of tsunami funds, but also to tsunami-affected communities, whose participation is vital to the sustainability of programmes.

As the immense task of rebuilding houses, hospitals, water systems and livelihoods finished, we can see more clearly the lessons of the tsunami and how this operation has fundamentally changed the way the Red Cross Red Crescent responds to large-scale disasters.

Behind the impressive statistics are the people whose lives we have touched. Kannapan Sivalin in Sri Lanka, who for the first time has clean water for herself and her children, Mariyam Saamira from the Maldives, who is overjoyed to be living back on her “beloved island” after four years of living in temporary accommodation, and Ismet Nur who is happy to be getting on with his life and a new baby daughter in Indonesia after starting “from zero”.

We also think of the capacity we have built up in National Societies. Umi Alfiyah, 25, a former volunteer with the Indonesian Red Cross and now a staff member, went into action after the tsunami in Aceh, an earthquake in 2006 in Yogyakarta and another in 2009 in West Sumatra. Her role is reconnecting families separated by disaster.

“I really enjoy the job, especially when we reunite families. Other programmes provide material goods. We look after people’s emotional needs. We find their family.” Empowering families and communities to take preventive action on their own behalf, without being dependent on external support, is one of the clear, unalterable lessons learned from the tsunami experience.

The aim is always to leave people better off, to reinforce their existing coping mechanisms and to build their resilience to whatever the future holds. This is the true legacy of the tsunami operation.