A wave that reshaped global response

One year ago - on Dec. 26, 2004 - a magnitude 9.15 earthquake with an epicenter off the coast of Indonesia triggered a tsunami of epic proportions affecting 12 Indian Ocean countries, killing more than 225,000 people and displacing another 1.7 million. It also set off an unprecedented international response that may prove to be a model for future disaster relief.

The global reaction to the tsunami was immediate and extensive, as governments, militaries, the United Nations, and hundreds of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) mobilized. Relief operations proceeded quickly and effectively, providing food, clean water, health services, and temporary shelter for hundreds of thousands of people. The remarkable response prevented the widely anticipated "second tsunami" of disease and malnutrition.

Still, the danger existed that the tsunami relief story would play out like too many others: Aid pledges are made following the disaster, only to go unfulfilled as interest and media attention wane. But tsunami relief has been sustained. Donors are keeping their pledges, NGOs have billions in the bank to spend on projects, and survivors continue to be cared for relatively well.

To date, the world has raised an estimated $13.6 billion. Some 92 countries provided assistance during the past year, including countries, such as North Korea and Niger, themselves in need of aid. Substantial government aid packages have been complemented by an astonishing level of private giving (almost 40 percent of the total).

What explains the unusually generous world response? Primarily, the sheer size and uniqueness of the calamity: Giant tsunamis are much less common than deadly earthquakes. Also the timing of the disaster during the holiday season and the extensive media coverage contributed to public awareness.

The disaster also struck many Westerners personally, as more than 2,000 tourists from more than 40 countries were killed. And it helped that relief supplies could reach the affected region easily by sea. The relief effort has also had the benefit of the active engagement of former US President Bill Clinton, who serves as the UN's special envoy for tsunami recovery.

The region is now transitioning from relief to recovery. Reconstruction will take several years but signs of progress are already apparent. Almost all the 150,000 Indonesian students who lost their educational facilities returned to school within two months of the disaster. Most are meeting in tents or temporary facilities, but plans are in place to rebuild more than 350 schools. Tens of thousands of unemployed people have gone back to work through cash-for-work programs and the busy construction sector.

These are temporary fixes, however, and a long-term solution depends on restoring the devastated fishing, agriculture, and small-business sectors and diversifying the local economies. Fortunately, the tourism industries of affected countries bounced back quickly, with the exception of the Maldives, which has seen a 45 percent drop in visitors this year.

Adequate housing throughout the region remains the greatest short-term challenge that frustrates survivors and aid donors.

The tsunami prompted countries around the world to look anew at ways to limit damage from future disasters and bolster their ability to respond. The UN and Indian Ocean countries have started to develop a regional tsunami early-warning system, which is slated for completion by late 2006. Painfully aware that coastal overdevelopment - such as the clearing of mangrove forests - magnified the waves' impact, governments and NGOs are trying to balance reconstruction goals with environmental protections needed to mitigate future damage. "Build back better" is the relief community's mantra.

The tsunami altered not only the region's physical landscape, but its political one as well. In August the Indonesian government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement signed an agreement to end their 29-year conflict. Both sides identified the tsunami as "the turning point" in prompting them to reconcile their differences. Unfortunately that same spirit of cooperation has not flourished in Sri Lanka, where a peace process initiated in 2002 between the government and the Tamil Tigers is in tatters, as is a mechanism to facilitate relief and reconstruction efforts in Tiger-controlled areas.

Despite ongoing implementation challenges of coordinating hundreds of aid groups throughout the region, there is much positive news to report one year after the tsunami struck. Comparison with other major humanitarian emergencies this year in Pakistan and elsewhere highlights how uneven and unpredictable the international response can be to natural disasters. But the tsunami relief phase also demonstrates that the international community has the capacity and will to respond quickly and effectively to major catastrophes - if it chooses to do so.

Karl F. Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs, and David Fabrycky are, respectively, a professor and graduate research assistant at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. Stephen P. Cohen is senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.

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