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18 DEC 2014

Ten years on, the Indian Ocean Tsunami response reveals how people in crises can be helped by timely funding, says Oxfam

The unprecedented generosity of publics around the world to help people hit by the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 saved lives and gave affected people the means to make genuine long-term recoveries, says international aid agency Oxfam.

In a new report, The Indian Ocean Tsunami, 10 Years On, Oxfam says the tsunami was also a pivotal moment for the international humanitarian sector, which learnt lessons and emerged strengthened as a result – even while important challenges to it still remain.

The tsunami killed 230,000 people and left 1.7 million homeless on 26 December, 2004. Around 5 million people were affected across 14 countries.

The international community raised US$13.5 billion, up to 40 per cent by individuals, trusts, foundations and businesses. It remains the world’s highest-ever privately-funded crisis response. Oxfam received US$294 million, 90 per cent of that coming from private donors in the first month. Oxfam was able to set up responses in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, the Maldives, Myanmar, Thailand and Somalia.

Oxfam International Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima, said, ‘What was achieved in the humanitarian response to the Tsunami would not have been possible without the solidarity and generosity of people around the world. Hundreds of thousands of people have been able to rebuild their lives with dignity’.

Between 2004 and 2009, Oxfam and its partners helped around 2.5 million people. Oxfam gave shelter, blankets and clean water to more than 40,000 people in the immediate aftermath. Oxfam and its partners built or improved nearly 11,000 wells, and a municipal water system to 10,000 people in Aceh that local volunteers are still running successfully today.

Oxfam hired 960,000 people from affected communities in Somalia and Sri Lanka to do clean-up and construction work, including building docks and repairing fishing boats, and repairing 100 schools in Indonesia and Myanmar. Oxfam, as part of a wider humanitarian effort, helped to get children back to school within six months in all 14 tsunami-hit countries.

Oxfam says that while the huge outpouring of donations was vital to save lives and rebuild livelihoods, it noted that adequate responses to humanitarian crises remain a rarity today. Over the past decade, international funding has consistently failed to meet one-third of the humanitarian need outlined in UN appeals.

The report says that factors other than humanitarian need – such as strategic geopolitical and economic factors, international pressure and media coverage – continue to heavily influence government donors. Private donors are often influenced, as in the tsunami, by the type of emergency involved, their ability to identify with the affected people, and by a sense that their donations will make a difference.

The tsunami attracted more media coverage in two months than the world’s top 10 ‘forgotten’ emergencies from 2003, which included the start of the Darfur crisis and Iran’s Bam earthquake that killed over 25,000 people. A US study found that for every additional minute of TV network news featuring the tsunami, online donations would rise by 13 per cent.

One of the most important lessons from the tsunami was the need for more investment in reducing the risk of future disasters. This led to the ‘build back better’ framework, which focuses on replacing or fixing infrastructure that is better at withstanding natural disasters. This is backed up by communities gaining better access to healthcare and resources.

Another significant lesson was the absence of an early warning system that could have saved lives. A system has since been set up and was put to a successful test in the run up to an earthquake in 2012.

The Indian Ocean Tsunami also reshaped the humanitarian sector to some degree as organisations realized they had to be more coordinated on which aspects of an emergency response they are responsible, such as water and sanitation, logistics and shelter.