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Tsunami Rebuilding Efforts, One Year Later

Author: Eben Kaplan
December 22, 2005

What is the status of the tsunami reconstruction effort?

On December 26, 2004, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake on the Indian Ocean's floor touched off a series of devastating tidal waves through the Bay of Bengal and as far as East Africa. Walls of water, some up to sixty-five feet high, swept across the coastlines of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and India, leaving more than 225,000 people dead and an additional 1.8 million homeless. The disaster touched off one of the largest humanitarian aid efforts in world history the world has ever seen: Aid organizations from around the world rushed to provide food, shelter, and medical care to the millions of survivors. In the year that followed, "Real steps forward have been made," writes Geoffrey Dennis, chief executive of CARE International in a December 2005 report. But there is still much to be done. Experts say it could be more than five years until reconstruction is complete.

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Which areas are making good progress?

The tsunami sparked what experts call a remarkable outpouring of generosity in charitable donations from around the world. Relief agencies reported record levels of donations topping $13 billion, and in the case of Oxfam, more than 90 percent of the funds came from private contributions. The outpouring of aid quickly met basic needs for food, water, and medical care in the worst hit-nations—Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand—and prevented a much-predicted "second tsunami" of disease and malnutrition. Once the immediate need for relief had been met, aid groups shifted their focus to the process of longer-term reconstruction, says Mike Rewald, senior adviser for rights-based programming at CARE International. Recovery workers began meeting with community leaders to map out the rebuilding process.

Cash-for-work programs contributed to the reconstruction effort while providing jobs and prompting social development: Many women participating in such programs are receiving the same wages as men for the first time. Providing jobs like building houses and weaving rope used in fishing nets has given income to workers who expected to miss a year of work due to the seawater that rendered their farmland temporarily useless. Many of the communities ravaged by the tsunami relied on the fishing industry. As the waters receded, most fishermen discovered their equipment had been destroyed. International aid groups have provided thousands of fishermen with the means—primarily boats, nets, traps—to return to their livelihood.

Among the first areas to be rebuilt were resorts. The BBC reports many Thai resorts have already been completely rebuilt and are welcoming a steady stream of visitors. This speedy construction has created its own problems; local Thai villagers accuse developers of expanding their beachfront holdings illegally. More than two-thirds of the forty seven Thai villages destroyed by the tsunami are currently embroiled in land-title disputes.

Which areas have made poor progress?

“The most glaring challenge is in the housing sector,” says David Fabrycky, a graduate researcher at George Washington University. A recent Oxfam report suggests roughly 80 percent of the people left homeless by the tsunami are still without permanent housing. The task of providing such shelter housing is roughly equivalent to re-housing the entire city of Philadelphia. Part of the reason for the slow progress is the focus on long-term development. Dietrich Stotz, senior advisor for the German development group GTZ, told the Wall Street Journal, “The houses should be better than before. If you do that, it has to take time.” Other obstacles to the rebuilding effort include disputed land titles, impassible roads, and shortages of materials and skilled labor.

Identification of victims is another process that has gone slowly. One year later, nearly 50,000 people are still considered missing. In Thailand, where 2,800 remain missing, the national tsunami victim identification center has identified the bodies of some 3,000 people, but an additional 800 remain unidentified. This is particularly troublesome for a culture that believes a lifecycle is incomplete unless the body is recovered, prayed for, and cremated.

What is the status of the early warning system?

One year ago, when the tsunami struck, no early warning system for such natural disasters existed. The use of such a system might have saved thousands of lives. Efforts are now underway to create a two-part warning system for the Indian Ocean. The first component consists of advanced ocean-monitoring technologies—seismographs, sea-level gauges, and deep-sea ocean pressure sensors—that would alert early-warning centers of a coming tsunami. The second involves community response drills that take a signal from the warning centers and translate it into evacuations. In addition to tsunamis, the system will give advance warning of such coastal hazards as cyclones, sea swells, floods, and earthquakes. The United Nations is working with the Indian Ocean nations to create this system, which is slated for completion by July 2006. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is also assisting with this effort, contributing funding, American expertise, and technical support. Tim Beans, a USAID administrator, said in an August press release the warning system is "one of our top priorities in Asia, and an important part of the U.S. post-tsunami reconstruction effort."

What else has the United States done to assist in the recovery?

The U.S. government pledged $857 million in relief, more than any other nation. In addition, U.S. private and corporate donations totaled an unprecedented $1.48 billion. Former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton spearheaded the national fundraising effort, and Clinton has gone on to become the UN special envoy for tsunami recovery.

USAID is the primary U.S. institution participating in the recovery effort. In addition to its contributions to the early warning system, the agency continues to distribute aid alongside many private agencies—through cash-for-work programs, micro-loans, business advice, and job skills training. USAID is also working to rebuild critical infrastructure, such as water systems and roadways.

Has U.S. assistance in the recovery effort changed perceptions of the United States in Southeast Asia?

U.S. aid has fostered very positive sentiments toward the United States in tsunami-affected areas, reports show. One survey found as many as 65 percent of Indonesians now hold a more favorable view of the United States. The United States is "doing good work and getting credit for it, while boosting the image of America in the world," says Karl Inderfurth, a George Washington University professor and former assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs. "To project the humanitarian face of American foreign policy has been very useful."

What has the political fallout of the tsunami been on the local level?

Indonesia's Aceh province was one the areas hardest hit by the tsunami. Nearly 130,000 people died in Aceh and more than 30,000 remain missing. For nearly thirty years before the tsunami, Aceh had been embroiled in a bloody conflict between separatists and the government. When the waves hit, fighting ceased as the parties became focused on the more immediate struggle for survival. An August 15, 2005 peace agreement called for separatists to surrender their weapons and the government to withdraw its troops. This process was completed December 20.

Sri Lanka's civil war has claimed 60,000 lives over three decades, though a 2002 ceasefire brought an uneasy peace. When the tsunami struck, 35,000 people were killed in a matter of minutes. Almost immediately, the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)—the chief rebel faction—rushed to the aid of the survivors. "There was hope this summer for a tsunami boost to the peace process," Fabrycky says, "as the two sides reached an agreement for a joint mechanism for distribution of external aid." There were even reports of soldiers from each side spontaneously working together on relief projects. Prospects of a lasting peace seemed good until November 17, when Sri Lankans elected Mahinda Rajapakse as their new president. President Rajapakse's insistence on renegotiating the truce further weakened the shaky peace. LTTE forces fired on a government helicopter December 17, violating the ceasefire and casting further doubt on the nation's future.

"The tsunami also showcased the rise of India in the region. While dealing with the effects of the tsunami on four of its own states, it also extended relief to other countries and used its military to assist in regional relief operations," says Fabrycky. India further demonstrated its humanitarian leanings when it delivered aid to the United States in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

What has the international political fallout been?

Though the recovery effort is far from complete, experts say the recovery effort has been remarkable. According to Inderfurth, "[The tsunami] has become the poster child for how the international community should respond." Aid agencies have proven adept at transitioning from relief to long-term recovery, and have adopted a development-minded approach whereby they "build back better." Inderfurth says the two most important factors in the response have been the outpouring of generosity and a sustained political will to see the recovery through.

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