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The tsunami: looking back at an emergency operation

16-12-2005 Interview

Almost twelve months on, Reto Meister, the ICRC's delegate-general for Asia and the Pacific, talks about the ICRC's response to the tsunami.

©ICRC/T Gassmann/id-e-00116 
  Indonesia. A consultation at the ICRC/Norwegian Red Cross field hospital    
©ICRC/T Gassmann/id-e-00079 
Indonesia. Children wait for the distribution of ICRC relief material    
©ICRC/J. Barry/lk-e-00091 
Sri Lanka. The distribution of family relief packages    
©ICRC/J. Barry/lk-e-00090 
  Sri Lanka. Displaced children in a temporary camp   
  Reto Meister, delegate-general for Asia    
     One year on, where does the ICRC stand with its work on behalf of tsunami victims in Indonesia and Sri Lanka?  

We are now looking back at an emergency operation. The victims are now in the middle of reconstruction and development. What we had intended to do is done both in Sri Lanka and Aceh. Take for example the medical hospital in Banda Aceh which allowed us to assist more than 10,000 outpatients and perform around 700 surgical operations. In May, we handed this facility over to the Ministry of Public Health in Indonesia. Other emergency relief work included the provision of drinking water by cleaning up 3,000 Sri Lankan wells contaminated by debris and salt water. The organization also delivered emergency materials to 300,000 people in Indonesia and 180,000 people in Sri Lanka.

In both contexts the ICRC's attention has returned to conflict related issues. In mid-August, the Helsinki agreement between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) opened up many areas to the ICRC which were not previously accessible. Here the needs of civilians are now being evaluated and addressed.


 The issue of coordination was a key question raised during the humanitarian response to the tsunami and, more recently, to the South Asia earthquake. What is the ICRC approach here?  

Coordination is difficult if you are not very clear about initial ambitions of how many people you can in reality assist. When the ICRC spoke of assisting 300,000 in Aceh, it was important to know that the means were available to do this. If all organizations have this approach then coordination becomes possible. It is much more difficult to coordinate on hypothetical plans.

Coordination should ultimately aim at avoiding gaps and duplications. First and foremost, the ICRC coordinated very closely with the national Red Cross societies and with the authorities in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Within the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, coordination was successful – it allowed for the inclusion of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and all the other National Societies that took part. During the phase of reconstruction, the ICRC's role of coordination has declined but in the first phase we made a great effort to give National Societies the opportunity to be active und er optimal security conditions.


 After the tsunami, the ICRC made budget extension appeals of more than CHF 20 million for Sri Lanka and around CHF 30 million for Indonesia. How can the ICRC account for this money?  

Our budget extension appeals for the tsunami followed our own evaluations of emergency needs during the first days after the catastrophe and allowed a realistic and planned response as part of the broader relief operation. In terms of accountability, we have our own internal mechanisms and auditing systems. The ICRC presents annual financial statements in compliance with IFRS (International Financial Reporting Standards – formerly known as IAS) that are audited by an international audit firm. This is the case for all our operations, including the tsunami.

 The ICRC says it will remain in Pakistan-administered Kashmir next year to continue to help victims of the earthquake, yet it withdrew relatively quickly from tsunami activities. Why the difference?  

We feel it is right to stay engaged in Pakistan-administered Kashmir because the needs we observe and the answers we can provide cannot be limited to a one-off assistance or protection activity. In particular because of the cold climate and the scale of the damage, the emergency phase will last through the winter at least. We are therefore committed to stay throughout the winter and into next year when people need help to stand on their own feet again. But, as in the case of the tsunami, the ICRC will not be involved in reconstruction. 

 What lessons can be learned from the tsunami response?  

Firstly, it confirmed that we can count on our Movement partners. If yo u compare the source of donations, it is striking that both in the tsunami and the more recent earthquake, the majority of donations came from National Societies and through them the general public. And this support extended to human resources - certain operations we would not have been able to perform without the input from National Societies.

A second lesson was that a well functioning rapid response system is needed both at headquarters and in the field. You must have detailed plans but you must also be flexible to adapt them to changing circumstances.

Thirdly, if you are on the ground and you have the means to intervene to make a significant difference you should act. It would be irresponsible to say that our mandate did not allow us to respond. We had to react and we acted correctly. We made a difference to the lives of numerous people.