Experts fear repeat of ’04 tsunami relief fiasco

Indian Ocean aid hampered by bureaucracy, rivalries, theft


Disaster experts warned Monday that mistakes made in the relief effort after the catastrophic 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami must not be repeated with the typhoon that has smashed the Philippines.

The humanitarian response to the tsunami, which left some 275,000 dead and wreaked havoc across Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand nine years ago, sparked heated debate about the size, form and deployment of assistance.

Some observers, including the British Red Cross, complained that the relief effort was hampered by rivalries between agencies, delivery of inappropriate aid and difficulty in managing the huge sums of money donated.

Others said much of the reconstruction funding that was promised was never actually distributed, while money was squandered due to corruption, mismanagement and unnecessary duplication of aid efforts.

Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan — which is feared to have killed more than 10,000 people — are growing increasingly desperate for aid, and countries and organizations are scrambling to mobilize and donate.

But Martin Mulligan, chief investigator on an Australian research project conducted for AusAID on what could be learned from the post-tsunami recovery in Sri Lanka and southern India, said it is important to get it right this time.

“It is always the most vulnerable people who bear the brunt of such ferocious disasters and I’m not convinced that the disaster response ‘industry’ has learned the lessons on how to rebuild devastated communities,” he said.

“The immediate post-tsunami relief effort was impressive but many mistakes were made — perhaps inevitably — in the targeting of aid for long-term social recovery,” he said.

“Aid organizations undoubtedly have more to learn from post-tsunami success stories about how to work within traumatized communities in order to ensure that aid funding is well-targeted and effective.”

Paul Arbon, director of the government-run Torrens Resilience Institute in South Australia that was set up to improve the capacity of organizations to respond to disasters, agreed more thought must be put into the relief effort.

“Foremost, it is important that we make donations with thought and care,” he said.

“Typically, the well-meaning efforts of communities around the world result in an unmanageable influx of all kinds of goods into disaster zones, and this creates a logjam in ports and airports that disables more targeted disaster relief.”

Arbon added that “the most difficult phase of disaster relief will occur over the coming months and years when communities will struggle to find the support that they need as the world’s attention moves on to the next disaster or crisis.”

On the ground in the Philippines, aid workers Monday said the scene was one of utter devastation with millions of people affected.

“The devastation is beyond comprehension. We urgently need funds to meet the basic needs of children and their families,” said Save the Children Chief Executive Paul Ronalds, whose organization has deployed rapid response teams to badly hit Tacloban.

A humanitarian forum being held in Sydney this week, originally intended to look at the Syrian crisis, will now focus on the international response to the Philippines disaster, with Australian Red Cross chief Robert Tickner on Monday warning it will take years to rebuild.

“Whole communities smashed, horrific loss of life,” he said, adding that anyone who wants to help should make a cash donation rather than sending goods, which may not be what is immediately needed.

“It’s better to buy locally and stimulate the local economy,” he said.

Haiyan may go down in history as the deadliest natural disaster to hit the calamity-prone Philippines, which is located along a typhoon belt and Pacific’s so-called Ring of Fire, where many of Earth’s earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur.

The worst disaster until now was a tsunami in the Moro Gulf that was triggered by a 7.9-magnitude earthquake on Aug. 16, 1976. It devastated the coast of the southern island of Mindanao, killing between 5,000 and 8,000 people.

The most damage from an earthquake alone was a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck the mountain resort of Baguio city and other areas of the northern Philippines on July 16, 1990, killing 1,621 people.

The worst previous storm was Tropical Storm Thelma, which unleashed flash floods on the central city of Ormoc on Leyte Island on Nov. 15, 1991, killing more than 5,100.

Second among storms was Typhoon Bopha, which smashed into Mindanao on Dec. 3, 2012. Rarely hit by typhoons, the region suffered about 1,900 people dead or missing.

Typhoon Ike hit the central islands on Aug. 31, 1984, killing 1,363 people.

The worst eruption was when the volcano Taal, about 60 km from Manila, erupted on Jan. 30, 1911, killing about 1,300 people living in nearby villages.