Sustainable recovery requires long-term effort in tsunami zone
Q&A with Alex Jones, FAO’s post-tsunami operations coordinator
What is your assessment of the recovery effort at the one-year mark?
Overall, the recovery is going well, but depending on the countries and on the level of damage, we are at different stages of recovery. If we look at Thailand where damage was severe but not overwhelming, they are well along the road to recovery. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the northwest coast of Aceh, Indonesia, where many areas are still in critical condition.
What are the biggest challenges FAO faces?
Our biggest challenge is the scale of the reconstruction effort. Millions of people were affected across seven countries. It was an unprecedented level of destruction. In Indonesia and Sri Lanka, around 100 miles of coastline were destroyed – not just a couple of areas or towns.
Half a million people in Indonesia are still living in temporary shelter. Entire communities were destroyed. The heavy loss of life means that the social backbone of these communities is gone. The professional categories have been decimated. The town of Calang on the west coast of Aceh, for example, lost 90 percent of its population. The town will be rebuilt; there are sufficient international resources. But they lost administrators, schoolteachers. Where do you start rebuilding communities?
Livelihoods are not just economic, they are social. These need to be nurtured. There has been a huge amount of attention and financial support, but this will end relatively soon. So there is a danger of a relief gap -- a gap in funding, activities, policy attention. Sustainable recovery requires a five- to ten-year effort.
The donor response to the tsunami emergency was unprecedented. How do you respond to people who criticize the pace of recovery?
There has been huge donor response, larger than for any emergency in recent history. In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, people’s basic needs for food, clothing and shelter were met quickly. But reconstruction takes a lot of time, not just money, and it can only go as fast as the local communities are willing and able to go.
Our role is supportive. We’re not there to rebuild their country for them and then hand it over. Reconstruction has to be community-led, especially if you’re going to get it right.
Shelter, in particular, is a very complex issue, which involves not only the buildings themselves but land ownership and land use issues, as well as environmental considerations.
FAO is not directly involved in shelter reconstruction, but it is providing assistance on the timber side through development of appropriate timber use policies and technical specifications for wood products and assistance in identifying legal sources of timber.
Is more money needed?
More money will always be needed. Overall damage from the tsunami is more than ten times what was pledged in assistance, and that doesn’t include the value of lives lost. Investment is still needed to rebuild productive activities, to top up these countries’ own activities and provide technical support. A year on, these communities need fewer blankets and more knowledge-based assistance.
With so many boats being built or donated, what is FAO doing to ensure their safety and to prevent overfishing?
FAO is responsible for the overall coordination of fisheries sector rehabilitation in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, in collaboration with local authorities. We warned as early as February about the danger of building up excess fishing capacity and the potential environmental risks from inappropriate boats and gear.
What we are focusing on now is the quality of boats delivered and their appropriateness to local fishing practices. In Indonesia, FAO has trained 140 boat builders and is supplying 200 boats. We are also setting vessel safety standards, with the help of a naval architect working there now, and establishing vessel registration systems.
Fishing gear is also important, but engines and gear are often overlooked by those providing boats, even though they represent around 40 percent of a boat’s total cost. So we’re supplying engines and gear for a lot of boats.
FAO has been supporting sustainable fisheries management for decades, and we will continue to provide assistance in this area.
What, if anything, has the international humanitarian community learned from this disaster?
Preparedness for something like this is virtually impossible, but there has to be a faster response. For this to happen, funds need to be available within 30 days of the disaster, not six months, as is usually the case. So there is a need for the creation of a well-financed global emergency fund so that aid agencies have sufficient resources to begin work immediately in the wake of disasters like this.
The overall message is a positive one. A large amount of attention, funding and adequate human resources to address the needs of these countries has resulted in exceptional performance to date. And the ability of the governments themselves to take the lead has been very strong.
According to a recent FAO/WFP assessment, markets are functioning relatively well, in spite of the damage to economic infrastructure. Rice yields in many areas are back to pre-tsunami levels, and although not all land has been brought back into cultivation, Aceh is still producing a rice surplus, with the net surplus going to other regions of the country.
Some areas, like the west coast of Aceh, will be a disaster zone for years to come. But in other areas, the picture looks much better.
Information Officer, FAO
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