Two months ago, the international community launched the world’s biggest humanitarian operation in response to the December 26 tsunami, which killed close to 290,000 people in the Indian Ocean. The mammoth aid effort helped prevent tens of thousands of more lives being lost to hunger and disease.
In the days after the tsunami, the pictures of human suffering were stark and the warnings were grim: millions of homeless survivors in 12 Indian Ocean countries were cut off from the world, struggling to get food and clean water, and were at risk of dying from disease.
A stunned world responded and the United Nations led an unprecedented relief mission made up of local communities, governments, volunteers and international aid groups.
The World Food Program’s country director in Indonesia, Mohamed Saleheen, says the worst fears were not realized – even in the hardest hit region – Aceh Province in Indonesia.
“Hunger has been avoided, there is no starvation because aid has been flowing in, in an overwhelming manner. The people are getting the food now,” he said.
The task was not easy. In Sri Lanka an 800-kilometer stretch of coastline lay devastated. The earthquake and tsunami in Aceh destroyed all land routes to many communities. Tiny islands like India’s Andaman and Nicobars and the Maldives confronted huge losses.
One of the first tasks was to get aid on the ground and this is where armed forces from across the world stepped in. Military helicopters delivered the first food and clean water while warships – equipped with hospitals, generators, and engineers – tended to the injured and cleared paths for land convoys.
Aid agencies worked to prevent outbreaks of epidemics. Rudimentary sanitation was set up in crowded relief camps to prevent waterborne illnesses such as cholera. In some places, inoculation campaigns for diseases like measles began within days of the disaster. Surveillance programs were put in place to monitor and treat outbreaks of diarrhea.
The United Nations Children’s Fund spokesman in Sri Lanka, Geoffry Keele, says the result is gratifying. “No child has died post-tsunami from a disease related to displacement. And this is a country where close to a million people were displaced. Yet no child has died from diarrhea disease, respiratory infection, or other diseases. So really I think, the first initial emergency phase has been very successful,” he said.
In many places, local communities and private aid groups were the first to reach the survivors. In India, which refused most overseas assistance, local volunteers made a huge difference.
In India’s hardest-hit region of Tamil Nadu, district official, J. Radhakrishnan, says truckloads of food and clothes kept arriving from far-flung corners of the country.
“With regard to material, what happened there was an overflow. Once this tragedy came to be known, as far [away] as Punjab, people had come and given us supplies,” he said.
Everywhere the generous outpouring of donations helped maintain the momentum of relief efforts.
Film stars and singers from Hollywood to Bollywood held concerts, top cricket and football players organized matches to raise money for the tsunami victims. Government and private donations topped a staggering five billion dollars.
Aid workers say the first phase of the relief operations succeeded because of unprecedented coordination between civil society, aid agencies and governments.
Poonam Khetrapal Singh, deputy regional director with the World Health Organization in Southeast Asia, calls it a collective effort.
“This was one such emergency where everybody came together to respond. We have seen this kind of response very rarely. It was not just governments, it was even individuals who were going out in a big way to help. And we do feel that international agencies also put in their best. One factor which really emerged this time was that the response from the agencies was a very coordinated response and that very far in helping out,” he said.
Even with this massive effort, some areas went days or even weeks before getting significant aid. Transport logjams meant that shipments of food and shelter materials say on airport runways instead of being loaded onto trucks and sent to desperate survivors.
Now, aid agencies stress the new challenges. A senior official in the WHO’s Southeast Asia office, Jorge Luis Perez, says much work remains.
“Just because now the media and everybody has left does not mean that the war has been won. Some of the battles have been won, but there are more things coming up in the following months as people return to where they used to live,” he said.
Indeed the trek back from temporary camps to new shelters will throw up new challenges. The huge task of helping people regain livelihoods is daunting. And experts say the psychological scars of the disaster may last a lifetime. But at least this time, a massive outpouring of compassion from around the globe, have helped give tsunami survivors an opportunity to rebuild their shattered lives.