Recovering From Tragedy

Sriyawathi Malani Gunatilake and her daughter Kumudu Priyadarshani near homes being rebuilt in Peraliya, Sri Lanka, about 40 miles south of Colombo, last year.
Sriyawathi Malani Gunatilake and her daughter Kumudu Priyadarshani near homes being rebuilt in Peraliya, Sri Lanka, about 40 miles south of Colombo, last year. (By Gemunu Amarasinghe -- Associated Press)
By Bill Clinton
Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Today marks two years since the 2004 tsunami unleashed untold suffering and devastation upon Indian Ocean coastal communities. The tragic toll still resonates: more than 200,000 dead; 2 million people displaced; 370,000 homes destroyed or damaged; some 5,000 miles of coastline devastated; and 2,000 miles of roads ruined.

The tsunami was also unprecedented in the magnitude of the response by donors, the affected governments and their everyday citizens. The homeless received shelter, the hungry were fed, disease was prevented and substantial recovery has been achieved over the past 22 months. Nearly 150,000 homes have been rebuilt or repaired and 80,000 more are being reconstructed. More than 1,600 schools and health centers have been rebuilt or are under construction, tourists are returning to the region in large numbers, and economic growth rates have improved substantially.

At the same time, the tasks ahead are significant in scope and cost. Some 200,000 homes must still be rebuilt or repaired, and in Aceh in particular the challenges of rehabilitating infrastructure and promoting economic development remain daunting. In light of the work to be done, it is encouraging that so many donors have sustained their focus, thus far translating some $13 billion in pledges into roughly $11 billion in firm commitments to critical projects.

I have just completed my third and final trip to the affected region as the U.N. secretary general's special envoy for tsunami recovery. In India, Thailand and Indonesia, I saw once again the resilience of the human spirit and the determination to build a better tomorrow.

At year's end, the mandate entrusted to me by the secretary general will conclude and my responsibilities will be transferred to the United Nations, the World Bank and other established institutions. As this important work continues, I believe four key lessons learned from the tsunami reconstruction effort will contribute to further and faster progress, as well as to dealing with future natural disasters.

First, we must get better at managing risk. Climate change and patterns of human behavior ensure that more devastating natural disasters will occur in the future. The good news is that officials in the countries affected by the tsunami have made progress on a regional early-warning system, natural disaster prevention legislation, training of rapid-response personnel and public education. However, funding for prevention is much harder to come by than funding for relief after a disaster. Donors and governments of at-risk nations must invest much more money to ensure that early-warning systems reach coastal communities, that safe building codes are developed and enforced, and that evacuations are practiced.

Second, we should pursue recovery practices that promote equity and help break patterns of underdevelopment. In the Cuddalore District of India, for example, officials have worked with nongovernmental organizations to expand their post-tsunami housing program to include new homes for Dalits and members of other disadvantaged communities. Many of these people did not lose assets in the tsunami but had been living in substandard conditions. Authorities in Aceh are considering similar solutions for former squatters and renters who did not own the housing they lost in the tsunami. Such efforts should be strongly encouraged.

Third, we must recognize that peace is critical to any recovery process. In Aceh, long-conflicted groups put aside entrenched differences and created an environment conducive to reconstruction. Tragically, the tsunami has not had a similar impact on reconciliation in Sri Lanka, where the recovery will be continue to be hampered until the parties resume a serious dialogue and reestablish the cease-fire. I hope they will choose to work for peace; all of Sri Lanka, especially the tsunami victims, will continue to suffer until they do.

Finally, we must do more to harness the talents of local entrepreneurs and established businesses, domestic and foreign, in relaunching economies. Corporations in the United States and around the world contributed generously to the tsunami response, but we need to do more to turn philanthropists into investors, and providers of access to new markets.

Two years ago, millions around the world responded generously to a tragedy of historic proportions. The challenge that remains is to sustain the recovery effort, use the lessons we are learning to continually improve our response, and apply those lessons to mitigate and respond to future disasters. This will be the most fitting way to honor the memory of the hundreds of thousands who died in the tsunami and to support the millions who survived and are rebuilding their lives.

The writer, the 42nd president, is president of the William J. Clinton Foundation.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company