Performance and Preparedness: Lessons from the tsunami
December 15, 2005
Taj Coromandel - Clive Duplex
Chennai, India

Fritz Institute organized the conference to commemorate the first anniversary of the tsunami and to reflect on lessons learned to prepare for the future. Speakers represented the National Government of India, the State of Tamilnadu, international NGO’s, UN organizations, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, donor governments, the military, private sector, and media. Representatives from approximately 100 local NGO’s comprised the audience.

Lynn Fritz, Director General of Fritz Institute, inaugurated the conference which began with a presentation of two studies conducted by Fritz Institute of perceptions of those affected by the tsunami. The studies’ key findings were introduced and presented by Dr. Vimala Ramalingam, Director, Fritz Institute India, and Nirmala Stephen on behalf of TNS, India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.  Dr. Ramalingam emphasized that the studies were noteworthy because they were the first studies of their kind to document the voices of the affected by a disaster across organizations, countries and time.

Part 1: The Role of Government in Disasters
Mr. P.C. Matthew, a former Union Secretary of Labor and the President of the Madras School of Social Work in Chennai, provided an address that placed disaster relief in a historical and philosophical context. A former collector of Nagapattinam in the 1940’s, he noted that the general attitude in India towards disaster relief had undergone favorable change over the last 70 years. He spoke of the progress of relief and rehabilitation services in India since the country’s democratization, the diversification of the economy and globalization. Nonetheless, he recognized the need for continuous study for the improvement of disaster preparedness, response and management, incorporating lessons learned from the tsunami such as the need for psychosocial assistance and the incorporation of the view of aid recipients.

Mr. Vinod Chandra Menon, Member of the newly formed National Disaster Management Authority of the Government of India, spoke about the past and future of disaster management in India underlining its geographical vulnerability. He cited several areas of concern in the Indian context including the activation of an early warning system, integrating the scientific, technological and administrative agencies for effective management of disasters, and assessing and mitigating the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to disaster events. He elaborated on the role of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) as the apex body for Disaster Management in India, with the Prime Minister as its Chairman, and the creation of a National Disaster Response Fund, a National Disaster Mitigation Fund, a National Disaster Response Force, and a National Disaster Management Policy.

General V.P. Malik, a Former Chief of Army Staff in India, discussed lessons learned by First Responders after the tsunami, particularly the broad involvement of the armed forces.  He elaborated on the relief efforts of the armed forces which encompassed locating survivors, dropping food supplies and tents, providing first aid, conducting damage assessments, setting up medical relief camps, and recovering dead bodies. He noted that India’s proactive stance in providing assistance to its neighbors improved relations in the region, opened possibilities of cooperative security and signaled the country’s confidence in its own capabilities. Additional strategic benefits to India included the deepening of the relationships with the U.S as a result of the unprecedented peacetime relief efforts of both countries.

Mr. Santhanam, the Tamilnadu State Relief Commissioner, provided a forward-looking policy perspective, noting that all reconstruction projects funded by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank would be completed by March 2008.  As a result communities will have better houses and roads, new bridges, disaster-resistant school buildings and new facilities for livelihood facilitation such as fish processing units. Mr. Santhanam described the efforts of the government to restore the fishery and agricultural sectors and provide psychosocial support to 46,000 people. He concluded that the most important lesson learned from the tsunami was the need to be prepared, asserting that the successes realized were largely attributable to the training provided to government officials, NGOs and elected representatives.

Ms. Nina Minka, Senior Humanitarian Assistance Advisor to USAID in India gave a presentation on her organization’s long-term collaboration with India on Disaster Management. She discussed the creation of a Disaster Management System in India that included capacity building, climate forecasting and disaster risk management initiatives. Core to the capacity building initiative is the establishment of an Indian incident command system to improve onsite disaster response.

Part 2:  The International NGO Experience: What Worked and What Did Not
This panel was chaired by Felix Bollman, Managing Director, Swiss Solidarity, and included Steve Hollingsworth, Country Director, Care International, Tim Schaffter, State Representative, UNICEF, and Joseph Mathai, Resource Development Director, Habitat for Humanity. Mr. Hollingsworth outlined the work of CARE India, in the areas of community micro projects, shelter, WATSAN and Psychosocial care. He said that what worked well was timely mobilization, leveraging existing partnerships with local NGO’s, working constructively with the government, and incorporating advocacy and psychosocial care into all programming. Some of the challenges Mr. Hollingsworth mentioned were the inability to meet minimum standards in building temporary shelter and the inability to meet donor expectations on spending and coordination among NGO’s and INGO’s to avoid duplication.

Tim Schaffter indicated that the goal of UNICEF was to “build back better.” He listed a number of successes, which included getting children back to school, improving school environments, involving young people in recovery projects, providing psychosocial care and support and protecting children from disease. Challenges he mentioned included inadequate social inclusion and equity as well as moving towards sustainable development.

In Joseph Mathai’s speech on Habitat for Humanity’s activities in India, he observed that the organization had been particularly successful in partnering with the community in designing houses, obtaining supplies and labor and recognizing the role of community leaders. He acknowledged that such partnerships enabled better understanding and adaptation to the local context. However, among the factors that did not work were donor-driven criteria about project location and quality, unhealthy competition among NGO’s, and the costly procurement or donation of material from areas far from the disaster zone.

Part 3: The Corporate Perspective
Particularly in India, but also in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the corporate sector played a significant role in tsunami relief efforts. Two prominent Indian corporations in tsunami Relief were the Tata Companies and Coca Cola, both mentioned by beneficiaries in the survey Fritz Institute conducted. In speaking about Tata’s role, Mr. P. Balasubrahmanayam, Director of Relief Operations, described how the Chairman of the Tata Group urged all parts of the organization to mobilize assistance immediately after the tsunami. In responding to this directive, 13 corporations in the group and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences developed short-term and long-term response strategies, including distributing relief kits, leveraging its transportation vendors and commercial supply chains, and mobilizing equipment for clearing debris and desalination plants to produce drinking water. In the longer term Tata adopted a village and set in motion plans to build 1300 permanent houses and several community shelters.

Similar to Tata, Coca Cola’s relief efforts were also immediate and substantive. Coca Cola India worked with the Indian Red Cross to distribute over 300,000 one liter bottles of water in the affected areas of India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The company mobilized such large amounts of water by converting the assembly lines in their Coca Cola bottling plants to be capable of bottling water. In addition, the company contributed Rs. 5.5 crore to the relief and rehabilitation efforts. Mr. Bhaskar Reddy, General Manager, Corporate Affairs, Coca Cola, cited the top five lessons learned were the importance of speed, logistics, the ability to make quick decisions on resource allocation, the involvement of top leadership, and partnerships with the media, NGO’s and other stakeholders.

Part 4: Discussion with Local NGO’s
Following the morning presentations, attendees, largely comprised of representatives from local NGO’s, engaged in a lively discussion of experiences and lessons learned. Some common themes that emerged were the need to share information among various stakeholders, particularly with beneficiaries, the feeling by local NGO’s that they were being exploited by International NGO’s that had the trust of funding agencies, and the abhorrent political interference in relief and rehabilitation decisions.  Other concerns centered on the importance of creating mechanisms that would institutionalize lessons learned and ensure that preparedness is implemented in practice. 

Part 5: The Role of Media
Mr. K.P. Sunil, a veteran reporter from the Indian media, gave a provocative presentation on the role of the media in disasters.  He spoke of the decreasing budgets and increasing pressure on newsrooms which required newcomers to the field to ‘learn’ on the job rather than be properly trained. Sometimes this led to irresponsible reporting and the violation of basic norms.  However, he said the news media could also be a valuable advocate for those affected during a disaster as pictures from the field in the tsunami spurred the government to action.

Part 6: Awards and Recognition
Fritz Institute presented awards to organizations in India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka that had emerged in its survey of beneficiaries as having provided excellent service in the field. The awardees included:

  • India: World Vision, SNEHA and the Government of Tamilnadu
  • Indonesia: World Vision
  • Sri Lanka: Habitat for Humanity and SEWALANKA

The conference concluded with a commitment to repeat the conference in December 2006 to continue focusing on the lessons learned. 

In Sri Lanka, the 2004 tsunami claimed over 35,000 lives and left half a million people homeless. More women died than men.
I would like to congratulate Fritz Institute for this excellent study and for coming out with some very useful recommendations.
- Mr. R Santhanam
Tamilnadu State Relief Commisioner
+ India tsunami Event
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