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PRESS CONFERENCE ON TSUNAMI RECOVERY EFFORT

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

22 December 2005

Following a year of “enormous giving” in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami -- which claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people across 12 countries -- the overarching message now was to “stay the course”, several involved in the recovery effort said today at a Headquarters press conference.

Updating correspondents on the situation in the 12 tsunami-affected countries one year later, upon the launch today of a United Nations report on the status of the recovery effort by former United States President Bill Clinton, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Tsunami Recovery, were: Eric Schwartz, Deputy Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery; Margareta Wahlstrom, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs; Deepak Bhattasali, World Bank; Johan Schaar, Special Representative for Tsunami Operations, International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies; and Gillian Dunn, Director of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Unit, International Rescue Committee.

Recalling the events of the morning of 26 December 2004, Mr. Schwartz said that the earth shook for “eight terrifying minutes”, unleashing a gigantic wave that struck 12 countries, killing 220,000 people and displacing 2 million more. More than 43,000 people were still listed as missing, thousands of children were orphaned, and some 400,000 homes had been swept away, causing $10 billion in damage in barely 24 hours. The relief and recovery challenges were unprecedented, and the international community had pledged some $13.6 billion in assistance.

He said that “a great deal had been accomplished”, citing, in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the prevention of outbreaks of disease and epidemics, the putting in place of transitional shelters, schools and other facilities. Now, permanent schools, health centres and homes were under construction, and a regional early warning system should be operational in the coming year. The most challenges days lay ahead, however, as the magnitude of the reconstruction requirements would severely test the capacities of local governments, which, in many cases, had lost a significant number of their skilled personnel.

Outlining key priorities for 2006, he said that former President Clinton, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Tsunami Recovery, would press donors and others to “stay the course” and remain committed even after much of the world’s attention had shifted to other crises. Given the large number of international organizations involved in the recovery, Mr. Clinton would also continue to promote more effective coordination, and he would encourage Governments to move forward vigorously to implement disaster-reduction initiatives related to such things as community education and early warning.

He said the Special Envoy would also encourage Governments to engage their own civil society in key recovery areas, as well as press for more coordinated approaches to livelihood generation, such as employment in such areas as agriculture and fishing. He would also continue to work aggressively to improve temporary living conditions for the tens of thousands of internally displaced, especially in Aceh, Indonesia, as he pressed Governments to step up the pace of housing. Above all, he would “keep the faith” with the millions who had offered so dramatically in the tsunami and its aftermath, towards enhancing future prospects.

Ms. Wahlstrom, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, reflected on what would likely be remembered in five years. The first was the spontaneous generosity demonstrated by the private and corporate sectors in response to the disaster, including that of non-United Nations and non-governmental sources. That had been a very interesting and potentially positive trend. The second thing that would be remembered would be the world’s ability for “surge”, or the immediate response and capacity of the international community to really come together in an emergency. The number of actors wishing to respond would be the third element remembered five years from now. What would also be remembered was the significant commitment required of Governments and civil society organizations and the United Nations to disaster-reduction strategies.

Focusing on reconstruction, Mr. Bhattasali of the World Bank said that reconstruction must begin almost as soon as a catastrophe hits. Although, in the initial stages, the focus was primarily on rescue, trauma and relief, immediately after that brief period, reconstruction plans were formulated or activated. And, the administrative capacity on the ground was absolutely vital to how the reconstruction unfolded. A look at the contrasting experiences between India and Indonesia had proved that point. India had had capacity intact, while in Aceh, most of that had been wiped away. That had made a big difference in the way the reconstruction had unfolded.

Reconstruction, he reminded correspondents, was a long, drawn-out process that would take five to 10 years. The main focus was, first, to provide better conditions for “liveability” in the areas hardest-hit. Sustainability and accelerated economic development were also vital, as was reducing physical and economic vulnerability in the long term. The restoration of administrative capacity was also crucial. Initial post-tsunami assessments had been formulated very quickly, within a few weeks. The second step was to take those and feed them into longer-term recovery plans and integrate them into Governments’ own development plans. The third task was to harmonize the work of the “implementers” and numerous actors, in which significant progress had been made.

He stressed that, while achieving fast results had been critical this year, creating the right foundations for lasting outcomes -- such as community involvement and keeping track of the money -- were even more important. He was seeing “real progress”. In recent months, the pace of reconstruction had picked up. In the first six months in Aceh, for example, some $1 billion was spent on relief activities; in the past six months, about the same amount had been spent on reconstruction. Another $2 billion to $3 billion would be spent in 2006 and 2007, and $7 billion to $9 billion up to 2009. The situation was reasonably satisfactory, and “we are on the right track”, he added.

Mr. Schaar said that the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies was involved in extensive recovery programmes in all affected countries. Today, it presented a revised action plan for continuing the recovery effort, which covered from 2006 to 2010, demonstrating that that was indeed a long-term engagement. Several lessons from the first year had been incorporated. The first was that sheltering was a process. People must be sheltered from the first days of the emergency until they were in permanent homes. The process was not only about putting one brick on top of another. Sheltering allowed for livelihoods, opportunities and income, and was the best means to help heal the psychological scars from the terrific trauma of the tsunami.

He said the International Federation was involved in, among other things, the whole sheltering in Aceh, for example, where reconstruction would take time. Also important was that actors see their role as contributors to one common endeavour. For people who needed help, it was of little interest to know who had provided a blanket or “cleaned that well”; for them, the total and final outcome was what was important. Sharing information and solving problems together towards providing a sustainable outcome was also vital. Since the very difficult emergency phase, he had seen increased coordination and collaboration. He urged early warning systems, community awareness, and protection of the coastal vegetation and ecosystem to save lives. He hoped that the second year of recovery would be a year of increased investment in disaster reduction.

Ms. Dunn, Director of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Unit, International Rescue Committee, said that some of the scores of member organizations had expertise in acute emergency and had phased out their tsunami-related work, while others remained important partners in the long-term recovery. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) played a unique role, assisting communities with their national and international staff. In the immediate aftermath, material aid had included water, food, medicines, and so forth. As that transitioned into the recovery phase, material assistance had shifted into more sustainable support. Whereas early efforts had focused on life-saving activities, the emphasis now was towards ensuring community participation in the regeneration programmes.

Year-round, she added, NGOs were helping communities rebuild lives and livelihoods. Reconstruction in Aceh, for example, had been largely community-driven, with $1.4 million in grants in play to support local businesses, such as the fishing industry. Other projects had included the regeneration of grocery stores and sewing markets, and even a flower shop had been rebuilt. Flowers and plants were selling well because people wanted to beautify their homes after so much pain and destruction. That type of comprehensive emergency response and the following long-term commitment would not have been possible without a United Nations special envoy, Governments, international financial institutions and the private sector. Cash and “gifts in kind” totalling $1.8 billion, and much of that had already been spent.

Asked whether, if the new United Nations central revolving fund had existed last year, things would have gone differently, Ms. Wahlstrom said that the unique thing about the tsunami had been that the money had flowed immediately. In fact, that had been the model for the fund. Not fully funded, it was aiming at $500 million, with the hope that it would be operational by early next year. That would make it possible for the Secretary-General and the Emergency Relief Coordinator to immediately provide several agencies with cash to mobilize significant first responses, such as getting people and supplies on the ground. Appeals would still be needed, but anyone hesitating to give money to an appeal because the system was slow in getting started would no longer have that as an excuse, as the system would start immediately.

To another question, Mr. Schwartz replied that the media played a critical role in two respects: to help promote accountability; and to help keep the focus on important issues. Understandably, the media would be drawn to other crises over time. One important role that President Clinton saw for himself was to sustain the media’s interest and that of the international community in the unique post-tsunami recovery effort. He also sought to keep the best people engaged in the recovery, and to ensure that the pledges turned into real financial commitments. That had been a main reason for the President’s visit last month to Aceh and Sri Lanka.

To additional questions about the pledges, Mr. Schwartz said that the magnitude of contributions and the need to secure actual disbursements from the pledges had not yet become a major issue, but it would over time, and his office would be very concerned with that. Other funding issues would also likely arise concerning the allocation of contributions, namely, convincing Governments to agree to spend in areas that were under-funded, and taking monies from activities that were over-funded. The issue of the rate of spending was also important.

To a question about whether local governments were putting in new housing or building codes, Mr. Schaar said that, yes, part of the recovery effort was to develop the building codes and mechanisms to ensure that what was rebuilt was safe. That process had been ongoing, and the dialogue between the agencies involved in that issue and the authorities had been very intense. That was not a question of safe housing necessarily being more costly than unsafe housing, but of identifying the principles for safety and ensuring that those were implemented.

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For information media • not an official record



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