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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Saturday, July 09, 2005

lessons learned and best practices in the response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami

ReliefWeb - Document Preview - Regional workshop on lessons learned and best practices in the response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami - Report and summary of main conclusions: Source: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)
Date: 05 Jul 2005


1. A regional tsunami lessons learned and best practices workshop was held in Medan, Indonesia, on 13-14 June 2005. It brought together 75 government, UN and NGO participants from Indonesia, Maldives, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, in addition to representatives of regional organizations and donors (see List of Participants as Annex II). This event was the culmination of a series of four national-level lessons learned workshops held in May and early June 2005 in Indonesia, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand. The aim of the regional workshop was to share reflections and experiences related to the national and international response to the December 2004 tsunami disaster, and to formulate recommendations to concerned actors that would help improve disaster preparedness and response capacity at the national and regional level.

2. The workshop consisted of plenary and working group sessions (see agenda attached as Annex I). The first session of the workshop (13 June 2005) consisted of presentations by government representatives of Indonesia, Maldives, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand that provided valuable insights on the preparedness systems in place prior to the tsunami, the relief and early recovery operations, and the main findings of the national-level workshops. Following these presentations, participants divided into working groups to discuss lessons learned and best practices in relation to the national-level response in the following areas:

3. On the second day (14 June 2005), participants focused on identifying recommendations on how to strengthen regional preparedness and response capacities that were addressed to the following actors:


4. The exceptional nature of the tsunami disaster was highlighted. Such an event was acknowledged to be extremely rare in the region, which largely explains why no comprehensive early warning systems were in place. The extraordinary scale of the disaster helps to explain many initial response difficulties experienced in the affected countries; no nation, it was recognized, was prepared for a catastrophe of such a scope. The disaster shed light on the shortcomings of existing preparedness systems, underscoring the need for their significant enhancement.

5. The level of risk awareness among the population was very low. This was identified as one of the main reasons for the high death toll. In a few cases, particularly in Indonesia and Thailand, isolated communities had retained an ancestral memory of similar disasters and had fled to higher grounds when alerted by the initial tremors, illustrating the effectiveness of risk awareness in reducing the human cost of disasters.

6. Amid the grief over the extent of death and devastation brought about by the tsunami, there was also a sense of satisfaction for the overall outcome of the relief operation. Affected populations in many areas swiftly received basic emergency assistance, while health care interventions notably minimized secondary loss of life and averted large-scale epidemics.

7. As is the case in the aftermath of any disaster, the affected communities themselves were the first and primary actors in the early relief efforts. However, it was recognized that these communities were not consistently consulted on important aspects of the relief and recovery work once organized national and international relief operations got under way. Their involvement in needs assessments, planning and implementation of emergency assistance programs was not prioritized, although it should have been.

8. The state of disaster preparedness in the affected countries prior to the tsunami was uneven. Whilst some countries benefited from a clear legal framework and institutional setup, the setup in others appeared weaker, with some confusion (especially in the early days of the response effort) in lines of communication as well as regarding command and control. Often new, ad hoc legislation was passed and new institutions created specifically in response to the disaster, further compounding the existing confusion in roles and responsibilities. Coordination within the government at both the horizontal level (among different institutions) and the vertical level (between central and peripheral bodies) was often inadequate. Allocation of resources for disaster management, or the ability to disburse funds at the appropriate level in the administration, appeared in some cases problematic. It should be noted however that all the countries affected by the tsunami are currently in the process of addressing some of the legal and institutional weaknesses that emerged during the response phase.

9. It was recognized that the militaries of the affected countries played a vital role in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Being the first on the ground to assist communities, they quickly provided security, logistics support, communications, and delivered large quantities of relief supplies. In several instances, however, the military were severely stretched in their capacity to assist, partly because they had an insufficient amount of key assets, such as means of transportation, and partly because their assets and personnel had also been affected by the disaster. The transition from military to civilian control of the relief operations was considered satisfactory.

10. The generally excellent cooperation between national and international military forces was highlighted. It was noted, however, that in some cases the lack of status of forces agreements (SOFA) constrained the scope of the assistance provided by the foreign military.

11. Civil society organizations (NGOs, religious and other community organizations as well as - notably - national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies) were hailed for their extraordinary contribution to the relief and early recovery efforts. Such organizations, however, did not appear to be systematically included in the disaster management plans of the affected countries.

12. The level of involvement of private businesses - both local and international - in the relief effort was unprecedented. Businesses contributed not only financially, but also through in-kind donations, thereby helping fill some critical gaps.

13. While the high level of international interest in this disaster led to the provision of massive amounts of much-needed relief supplies, it also contributed to exacerbating many problems traditionally experienced during large-scale disasters that receive high levels of media attention. Numerous “well-wishers” arrived in the affected areas with or without resources, many without appropriate experience in working in disaster situations. The coordination and management of these well-meaning individuals and organizations placed further strain on local and national authorities. Furthermore, it was suggested that many less experienced actors did not follow established standards and guidelines on the provision of humanitarian assistance, raising serious accountability concerns. Some actors engaged in culturally inappropriate behavior that could be considered detrimental to the dignity of the victims. Lastly, the adverse impact of large quantities of unsolicited, inappropriate donations from private citizens, non-governmental organizations and even foreign governments was highlighted.

14. The very large number of often diverse actors created acute coordination challenges, particularly during the first weeks of the response phase. Local authorities, who were in charge of directing the relief efforts, were often weakened by severe human and material losses, and at times had to cope with unclear reporting lines and interference from various government bodies. Many non-governmental actors, who had little or no experience in humanitarian relief, were unwilling or unaware of the need to coordinate with other partners. In some cases, the very high budgets at the disposal of some NGOs acted as a disincentive to coordinated action. Even large international organizations with a long history of involvement in humanitarian operations, at times took initiatives without prior consultation with other partners, and in some cases bypassed the government. At the same time, it was recognized that some of the coordination mechanisms that were put in place were dysfunctional, which encouraged some actors to work independently.

15. On an operational level, the need for better information management was highlighted. This concerned the gathering of information on damages and needs, the sharing of information about ongoing and planned programmes among all actors, and the dissemination of information about the relief operation to the affected populations. Most countries experienced severe logistics and transportation challenges, as the tsunami affected a very large area and crippled already weak road and airport infrastructures. Telecommunications were also problematic, as wireless telephone networks - as well as many land lines - immediately went out of order and national and international actors had to rely on shortwave radios. The crucial role played in many instances by local radio amateurs was acknowledged.

Full report (pdf* format - 68 KB)

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