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OPINION: A journey to resilience – ten years after the Asian tsunami

Mihir Bhatt, Senior Advisor for CDKN and Founder of the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute (AIDMI) visited 15 communities, from Chennai to Kanyakumari, meeting the same families he had worked with ten years ago when the devastating Asian tsunami hit. Here he reflects on what lessons communities and policy-makers have learned from the tsunami tragedy – and how that experience has helped them to prepare for climate-related disasters.

Mani Kutty came up to me, put his arm on my shoulder, and said, “Now my brother is a trained nurse. As all of you served us in a time of total loss, now he serves those who have no hope”.

I first met Mani’s mother four days after the Tsunami hit on 26 December 2004 on the devastated Trincobar beach in Tamil Nadu. She was distraught with the loss and destruction all around her. The area was one of the most badly affected in India. Now, when I meet her family ten years on, they are a story of hope. Mani has just finished his technical studies and his brother is a nurse in the coastal town of Karaikal. Their home has been restored and their town has scarcely any reminders of the disaster except the old village site debris.

For those of us working in the disaster management sector in Asia, the tsunami disaster was like nothing we had previously experienced. The scale of it was previously unimaginable.

The Indian Ocean Tsunami claimed more than 225,000 lives and wreaked devastation on a hitherto unprecedented scale in several countries. It prompted the whole world to grieve the tragedy and led to record breaking donations worth $13.5bn. Of this amount, 40% came from individuals and private sources, making the tsunami the largest privately funded emergency response ever.

Large scale devastation and genourus funding offered a rare opportunity for recovery and disaster risk reduction. Never before had the sector received such resources for ‘building back better’. And a lot of progress has been made. There are numerous stories of villages and towns being re-built in a way which makes them more resilient and prepared for any future disaster. The effective preparedness and management of recent cyclones along the coast in Odisha have shown how governments now better understand how to manage the risks.

However, overall, there still is a lot that needs to be done to safeguard the world from such disasters. Such a realisation has led the government of India to donate $1 million towards the UN’s multi-donor Trust Fund for Tsunami on the tenth anniversary of the event.

Over the last ten years, our undrestanding of the challenge has also advanced. The IPCC’s Special Report on Extreme Events and Disasters (SREX) published in 2012 highlighted the scientific connection between disasters, climate change and development. The importance of aligning strategies for adapting to the imapcts of climate change and disaster management have come centre stage. It has necessitated new modes of thinking and planning around the idea of resilience building.

Recent research reports suggest that changing climate can even trigger earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanos. This news is disturbing as it indicates we still have much to learn about climate change. US Secretary of State John Kerry in a statement on the tenth anniversary of the tsunami said it “sounded a warning on climate change”.

Across the world weather-related disasters and associated economic losses are on the rise. The IPCC has more recently, in their Fifth Assessment Report, concluded that ‘low lying, densely populated coastal areas in South Asia, including India and Bangladesh, will be at increased risk of storm surges, putting many millions of people at risk’. It shows that the human influence on the climate is clear and growing. With a changing climate, India and its neighbours are expected to experience more frequent and more intense disasters.

Therefore India’s ongoing efforts since the tsunami to build capacity for reducing the risk of disasters should be more closely aligned with efforts to adapt to the impact of climate change. The overaching objective of both is sustainability and resilience-building. However, practical application of this mainstreamed approach is still not well understood.

CDKN has tested the effectiveness of different models for climate-smart disaster risk reduction in India, helping to identify and address integration issues with positive outcomes. In Odisha, AIDMI, with CDKN and the government of Odisha’s support, tested a practical model for mainstreaming disaster risk management and adaptation to climate change at different levels, including with a community based organisation, district and state governments. It demonstrated the numerous co-benefits that are possible by simply maximising and building upon existing disaster risk management or climate change activities. However, identifying and realising these co-benefits takes some amount of support and capacity building.

AIDMI’s two year long recovery study with five Japanese authorities headed by Nagoya Univesity in tsunami areas across 15 locations starting from Chennai to Kanyakumari also suggests that a climate-smart disaster risk reduction approach needs to be developed for addressing key gaps in tsunami recovery. Answers to the following key research questions that have emereged as gaps in tsunami recovery research are key to moving forward in an integrated fashion.

  • Who will upgrade the infrastructure created during the recovery process and how?
  • What is the long-term economic impact of the tsunami on the livelihoods of the poor on the coast?
  • What is the impact of tsunami recovery processes on sustainable fisheries?
  • What is the nature and extent of vocational skill shortages after recovery in affected youth?
  • What ‘green growth’ opportunities were missed during the recovery?
  • Is a South Asian view emerging on tsunami recovery? How can this be used to build regional cooperation around disaster risk reduction?
  • Is there a gender gap in both the planning and performance of recovery in the tsunami communities?

Ten years ago our understanding of climate-smart disaster management was less advanced than today. There is therefore an urgent need to reflect on the status of both recovery and resilience-building in the affected areas and whether the current trajectory is still appropriate. In this connection AIDMI is developing an action research plan to further delve into these issues.

This reflection on how to move forward in the tsunami-affected areas is closely aligned to the international debate on the Hygo Framework For Action (HFA2) on disaster management. In Japan in March, world leaders and experts will be gathering to decide on what should be the overarching principles and mechanisms for managing disasters. What we have learned from the tragedy on the 26th December 2004 should be an important part of this discussion.

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