Tsunami Envoy Clinton Warns Toughest Time Still Ahead

NEW YORK, New York, July 14, 2005 (ENS) - The most difficult phase of recovery from last December's Indian Ocean tsunami lies ahead, former U.S. President Bill Clinton told the United Nations today at its headquarters in New York. The UN special envoy for tsunami recovery, Clinton has just returned from a trip to the Indian Ocean countries where he said many people are still living in tents, despite the resources that exist to create satisfactory, semi-permanent shelters.

Clinton told the UN Economic and Social Council meeting today on lessons learned from tsunami disaster that his experiences over the past five months as special envoy reconfirmed his belief in the intrinsic value of the United Nations, both as the deliverer of vital services in the aftermath of a crisis and "as the glue that holds international cooperation together."

"History tells us that this phase is in many ways the most difficult," Clinton said during a panel discussion on the disaster. "I am warning people that we may have more bad days than good this year. It will be a complex and frustrating time. Recovery in each country will need a customized response and will move at different speeds."

Triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the northwest coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, the tsunami struck without warning, killing more than 280,000 people and displacing more than 158 million others in 11 Indian Ocean countries.

Clinton said he has worked on maintaining a unified response, creating a disaster prevention system, and working out a set of useable lessons learned from the disaster.


Former U.S. President Bill Clinton addresses the UN Economic and Social Council in his role as UN special envoy for tsunami recovery. (Photo courtesy UN)
He said that the damage could have been less if preventive measures had been taken - if building codes had been adhered to, if vegetation had not been cleared from the coasts, if there had been more preventive awareness, and if early warning systems had been implemented.

He called for quick implementation of all such disaster mitigation measures. Among other factors, tourism would not return until that is done, Clinton said, adding that the focus of the current effort is to "build back better."

While the framework for the recovery effort is in place in most of the affected countries, a common plan of action for all stakeholders must still be created, said Clinton, who has asked the affected governments to take the lead in drafting a common plan.

Some of the affected countries are making substantial contributions on their own, he said. But the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, has just graduated out of the classification of least developed countries, and at the same time is falling behind in funding. Clinton requested a delay for the Maldives change in status, so it can qualify for the necessary aid.

There had also been much progress in engaging local communities to make recovery a ground-up effort.

Asking people to overcome politics in the common recovery effort, he asked for support for the Sri Lankan Prime Minister at this time. The island nation, split by a decades long civil war, was one of the worst affected by the tsunami. Nearly 90,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.

Human resource and capacity constraints needed to be addressed swiftly, while livelihoods needed to be restored, he said.

For example, housing construction industries needed to be created in some countries. In addition there were policy issues that had to be resolved, such as the coastal zoning question in Sri Lanka and the lack of clarity on shelter and timber-sourcing guidelines for reconstruction in Aceh.


A World Bank worker helps villagers map out land boundaries in Aceh. (Photo courtesy World Bank)
The lack of land titles had become a problem for many reasons as the giant wave wiped away most property markers. The World Bank is assisting registration of land titles in Aceh, where the bank has been involved in training at the local level to help villagers map out land boundaries and identify future reconstruction.

Clinton said he hopes that similar efforts will occur elsewhere.

The cost of the disaster is running at nearly $11 billion, according to the Tsunami Recovery Network, established as an independent monitoring body immediately after the tsunami. Around $2 billion has already been spent, mainly on short-term humanitarian relief. The remaining $9 billion will be mainly spent on the longer-term rehabilitation process.

About $8.5 billion has been pledged or committed through the international aid system. Around a quarter of this is being provided through nongovernmental organizations and charities.

On Wednesday, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a set of recommendations on how national, global and regional responses to natural disasters such as the tsunami can be improved.

Annan called for the development and coordination of plans and services that can speed up overall response time in "sudden onset" emergencies.

The UN should develop a more unified field-level management structure to ensure response efforts are well coordinated and effective, Annan said.

"The United Nations, governments and relevant civil society groups should commit to building and re-establishing regional, national and local disaster response capacities so that the humanitarian system has immediate access to deployable resources, particularly in disaster-prone areas," Annan said.

He suggests that the UN should foster regional frameworks in line with the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015, adopted by the World Conference on Disaster Reduction, held in Kobe, Japan a month after the Indian Ocean tragedy.

Hyogo calls for a global commitment to speeding up disaster response time, to setting guidelines for disaster prevention, and to developing early warning systems that offer timely information that is easily understandable by the people at risk.


Jan Egeland is the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs. (Photo courtesy UN)
At today's UN Economic and Social Council panel discussion, Jan Egeland, under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said the tsunami was "nature at its worst, but also humanity at its best." There was no outbreak of disease, no mass starvation; schools were quickly reopened, and heath facilities are probably better now than they were before in the affected regions, he pointed out.

Nicolas de Torrente, executive director, Médecins Sans Frontière, or Doctors Without Borders, United States, said the emergency needs of the tsunami-affected population had been relatively limited, and the risk of a massive death toll due to epidemic outbreaks had been exaggerated, he said.

"The local solidarity and national assistance that had played by far the most important role in the acute emergency response phase had been widely under-reported," de Torrente said, qestioning how useful and relevant the massive international emergency response had been.

In their comments and questions, Council members focused on the need to establish an early warning system for disasters, the importance of civil-military cooperation in relief efforts, greater financial accountability of donor contributions and the possibility of corruption.

Clinton said he recognized the historical precedent for corruption in disaster situations. In the case of the tsunami, he said, "evidence indicated some corruption in the immediate aftermath of the disaster," but Clinton said it has stopped as affected countries set up accountability systems for the huge sums that have poured in.


A young girl looks for a new toy among the clothes, shoes, and toys that have been donated by charity organizations and individuals to the camp for displaced people in Thailand's Ban Muang district. (Photo courtesy IFRC)
Most likely, Clinton theorized, the countries wanted to run the recovery right and they knew more money would not be forthcoming if evidence of corruption were to be made public, and he mentioned the watchdog role of nongovernmental organizations involved in the recovery.

Lack of capacity was a "much bigger problem" than corruption, he said.

Clinton recommended that national emergency response mechanisms should be modeled on the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the United States, which deploys local response mechanisms, shortening response times.

A representative of the International Council for Voluntary Agencies asked how governments could be influenced to work more closely with nongovernmental organizations in settling the land shortage issue that was keeping victims homeless.

Clinton responded that a more permanent and systematic relationship should be established between financial institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and governments.

The way to deal with bottlenecks to recovery, Clinton said in response to a question, is to determine whether the problem is at the local level or larger, and then take the first step to clearing it. As a rule, Clinton said, his office handles a problem by determining who could solve it.

On the role of the media, Clinton said money had poured into the region because the emotions of people had been touched. The lesson learned, he said, is that goals could be achieved if an emotional connection was raised for a cause.

As far as engaging the media goes, Clinton said, "That’s why I’ve been hired."