Still in need

June 24, 2005|By Karl F. Inderfurth, David Fabrycky and Stephen P. Cohen

ACCORDING TO experts, "the earth is still ringing like a bell" from the devastating post-Christmas Indian Ocean earthquake - now believed to have had a magnitude of 9.15 on the Richter scale - and tsunami. Aftershocks and tremors still rattle the region.

The tsunami killed more than 225,000 people across 12 Indian Ocean countries, making it the most deadly in recorded history. Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand suffered the greatest human losses. In addition, 2,500 foreign tourists from more than 40 countries perished, including 33 Americans.

The tsunami displaced more than 1.7 million people. About 250,000 homes were fully or partially destroyed in Indonesia's Aceh province and Sri Lanka alone. Reconstruction of homes and temporary shelters is under way in some areas, while in others, legal and bureaucratic problems and material shortages continue to delay rebuilding. Across the region, hundreds of thousands remain in tent camps or continue to stay with family or friends.

International financial institutions estimate that economic losses in four of the most affected countries (Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Maldives) total $7.3 billion. Long-term reconstruction could eventually cost several billion more as infrastructure is replaced and built to higher standards.

Since the tsunami hit only coastal regions, the impact on each country's national economy is relatively small, but it will be huge for the devastated areas. For example, total losses amount to just over 2 percent of Indonesia's gross domestic product, but nearly the entire GDP of Aceh province. The one exception will be the archipelago nation of Maldives, where losses amount to 62 percent of GDP because the economy, which relies on tourism, suffered a sharp drop in visitors. Maldives is in the Indian Ocean southwest of India.

The scale of the tsunami disaster prompted an unprecedented worldwide outpouring of sympathy and support from governments, businesses and individuals. International donors pledged at least $6.7 billion in aid, with the United States, Australia, Germany and Japan leading the government contributors. But, according to the United Nations, only about $2.85 billion has turned into specific, binding commitments so far. Much less has reached those in need, because of government and donor planning for specific projects, contracting and bureaucratic delays.

There is also increasing awareness in the international community of the need to ensure that reconstruction funds are not lost to corruption. Governments of affected countries have pledged transparency in their reconstruction efforts. The United Nations is using PriceWaterhouseCoopers to monitor disbursement of its $1 billion tsunami relief fund and has established a Web site to track U.N. tsunami spending.

Further, the Indian Ocean countries did not have an effective warning system in place Dec. 26. The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is organizing efforts to establish a regionwide tsunami-warning network. Despite some disagreement about where to situate a new regional warning center, the United Nations is optimistic that one will be in place by late 2006. Connecting a regional system and building national capacities in the 27 countries of the Indian Ocean will cost an estimated $23 million.

During his recent visit to Washington, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said the world's response to the tsunami proved that "the greatest wrath of nature was no match for the greater force that is the human spirit." The rapid mobilization of relief supplies helped meet the immediate needs of survivors, and fears of a food crisis, outbreaks of disease and child-trafficking did not occur.

Reconstruction of the areas most affected by the tsunami will take five years or more. Rebuilding the lives of survivors may take longer. The World Health Organization estimates that up to half of all residents in affected communities will require some form of psychological and social intervention, especially for children.

But if the initial level of commitment exhibited by the international community can be maintained, the 2004 tsunami may be remembered as a model for effective global disaster response, not just a disaster.

Karl F. Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, and David Fabrycky are, respectively, a professor and graduate research assistant at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. Stephen P. Cohen is a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.

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