29 Dec 2014
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This piece was originally published on the ODI blog Development Progress.

Ten years ago when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit land, killing 230,000 people and destroying the lives and livelihoods of many more, its human cost was immeasurable. The tsunami unleashed an unprecedented national and international response from affected communities, people, governments and many other organizations eager to help.

Any sudden-onset disaster poses response difficulties, but the post-tsunami challenges were heightened by the sheer number of people involved in response efforts and the disaster’s geographical spread, spanning more than a dozen countries.

A number of evaluations have been undertaken of the tsunami response and a few lessons stand out. These include the importance of improving emergency preparedness, disaster mitigation and early warning to save lives; the need for communities to participate fully in every stage of a response; the merit of aligning emergency humanitarian assistance with long-term recovery efforts; and the value of getting coordination and partnerships right.

Reflection and reform

The response sparked a period of reflection by humanitarian organizations and governments which led to a range of reforms aimed at improving the quality and effectiveness of humanitarian aid. It inspired the creation of the Central Emergency Response Fund to kick-start an immediate response; the introduction of the cluster system to improve coordination; and the strengthening of humanitarian leadership at field level. Inter-agency efforts to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian aid were also undertaken through the Emergency Capacity Building Partnership and the Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative.

Despite the progress achieved by these and other initiatives, some of the challenges raised by the tsunami response have persisted, given the current scale and complexity of response needs globally. Humanitarian organizations are being asked to respond in more places and for longer periods of time due to the effects of conflict, chronic vulnerability and environmental degradation.

Less than 1 per cent still spent on preparedness

We can point to progress in early warning and early response. Earlier this month when Typhoon Hagupit threatened devastation in the Philippines, the Government’s evacuation measures saved thousands of lives. Most of the countries worst affected by the tsunami have improved their disaster risk reduction efforts – for example, Thailand’s National Disaster Warning Centre and India’s community-driven SMS early warning system. But international funding for early warning, prevention and preparedness remains limited. From 1991 to 2010, less than half of 1 per cent of all international aid was spent on preparedness.

In the next few years the need to improve early warning systems and invest in preparedness measures will be even greater, given that the number of climate-related disasters (and the people affected by them) is predicted to increase.

World Humanitarian Summit

In the regional consultations which are being held in the run-up to the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, the importance of giving sustained support to regional disaster preparedness and management efforts is frequently raised. Improved communication and data-sharing among disaster management agencies is one example of enhanced regional cooperation in tsunami-hit countries. But these and other efforts need to be replicated at scale and at a global level.

Organizations working in different sectors as well as those working in humanitarian and development aid also need to work closely together. For example, following a sudden-onset natural disaster, humanitarian organizations must align their life-saving and early recovery work with the longer-term rebuilding efforts of, for example, municipal authorities, disaster management agencies and development investors if the aid effort is to remain coherent. People are desperate to get back on their feet, to restore their livelihoods, but it can take years. Some business owners hit by the tsunami in Indonesia have only just regained their pre-tsunami economic status, 10 years on.

Boosting resilience

We have also seen significant progress in national efforts to boost the resilience of the most vulnerable. India’s employment-guarantee scheme and Ethiopia’s productive safety-net programmes are two such examples. That is why resilience must be a central part of the post-2015 development agenda, firmly embedded in all aspects of humanitarian and development action. Only by doing this can we effectively address the root causes of poverty and inequality and help to build more resilient people, communities and societies.

To find the right solutions to these emerging challenges, we need to change our approach. 2015 and beyond presents an opportunity to do that – with the post-2015 development agenda, the post-2015 disaster risk reduction framework and the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit. The Summit will help to shape the future agenda for humanitarian action. It will provide an opportunity to make the crucial linkages necessary for a more joined-up approach. That was one of the major lessons of the tsunami. Let’s continue to work together to make the changes which are necessary.