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Coordination and the Indian Ocean Tsunami
Evaluations at Work
OCHA Women and Men: Working Towards Gender Equality
Information Management and OCHA
Coordination Snapshot: OCHA in Sudan
Humanitarian Response Reform


Coordination and the Indian Ocean Tsunami

On 26 December 2004, an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia registering 9.0 on the Richter scale created a massive tsunami – which quickly and viciously struck Indonesia before surging toward Thailand then moving across the Indian Ocean to strike Sri Lanka, the Maldives and finally the western coast of Africa in Somalia and Kenya.

Within hours, the earthquake and tsunami had caused unprecedented destruction in terms of scale and geographical distribution, primarily affecting poor coastal communities in twelve countries, destroying critical infrastructure, administrative capacity, basic services, and livelihoods. An estimated 240,000 people died because of the disaster and over a million people were displaced. Thousands of aid workers and military members flooded the region, bringing with them vast quantities of aid and forming what many termed “the second tsunami.” Within this chaotic environment, OCHA worked around the clock to negotiate with government officials, organise relief through coordinated sectoral working groups, create databases and websites to manage information, facilitate contributions to relief projects, and resolve the logistical bottlenecks at major ports and hubs.

Effective coordination in the tsunami-affected countries required OCHA to draw on all of its humanitarian response tools. The Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator was immediately designated as United Nations Special Coordinator for Assistance to the Tsunami Affected Communities and OCHA quickly restructured to meet the crisis by designating Humanitarian Coordinators (HCs) and deploying personnel to support them.

OCHA deployed four UNDAC teams to Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the Maldives, the most severely affected countries, to liase with relevant government authorities, organise inter-agency assessments to establish baseline data on humanitarian needs, and jumpstart sectoral coordination meetings. OCHA also quickly deployed humanitarian affairs officers to open new offices in Sri Lanka and the Maldives and to expand the existing OCHA presence in Indonesia. Humanitarian Information Centres were established in Indonesia and Sri Lanka and websites were launched to facilitate information gathering and distribution.

The websites also created an important link between the field and the rest of the world. Over 50 people were deployed in two months to facilitate coordination in the field, including standby partners and several civil-military coordination officers who established critical operations coordination links between the civilian humanitarian community and the 35 nations that provided military assets for the international effort. OCHA also arranged for the International Humanitarian Partnership (IHP) countries to deploy support modules of equipment to establish camps for humanitarian workers in Banda Aceh, Meulaboh, and Calang, Indonesia.

The Joint UNEP/OCHA Environmental Unit supported Rapid Environmental Assessments in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia to identify acute environmental issues with immediate impacts on human life, coordinate response efforts and develop practical waste management projects in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

At headquarters, OCHA issued daily situation reports detailing immediate needs and providing information on coordination, gaps in assistance, and financial updates. Just ten days after the crisis, OCHA launched a Flash Appeal compiling emergency and early recovery projects for the region. The CAP section tracked contributions to the Flash Appeal, and worked with Price Waterhouse Coopers to improve transparency and accountability for the over US$ 1 billion pledged to the UN for the relief effort. The Logistics Support Unit issued daily updates on logistical bottlenecks and priorities. ReliefWeb was also an essential forum for information exchange. In the first two months following the tsunami, ReliefWeb had published over 4,000 documents and 90 maps on the disaster, and during the peak of the response phase hits on the website averaged three million per day.

OCHA established the Tsunami Task Force, and also chaired Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Tsunami Task Force video-conferences between New York and Geneva to facilitate information sharing between headquarters, the field, and members of the IASC. Teleconferences, initially held daily, took place between HCs in affected countries and headquarters. OCHA organised several meetings for Member States and the IASC to facilitate information sharing and the creation of strategic goals. OCHA also ensured a continuous flow of information to the world media on the tsunami’s impact and the priority humanitarian needs. During the first two months following the disaster, OCHA provided over 1,000 interviews and responded to numerous press inquiries.

As time passed and most of the immediate needs of the affected populations were met, humanitarian relief began to shift towards early recovery and reconstruction activities. However, OCHA has played a key role in highlighting the continuing importance of ensuring that remaining humanitarian needs are not forgotten. Almost a year after the earthquake-tsunami, there are still approximately 1 million people displaced. Although some have obtained transitional or permanent shelter options, a significant percentage are still living with host families, and a smaller number are living in tents. OCHA has and continues to coordinate the development and implementation of a strategic solution to ensure that the needs of these individuals are met, and foresees that it will be able, by mid-2006, to exit the tsunami-affected countries, handing over coordination responsibilities to Resident Coordinators.