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The Quality of Mercy

Fri, Jan 7th, 2005
Posted in Commentary

The size and scale of the tsunami disaster in South Asia is without doubt the largest natural catastrophe of our time. The loss of life is overwhelming. To complicate matters, the damage is spread over several countries making relief efforts difficult to coordinate. But there are lessons that we can learn from previous humanitarian responses that can help us in carrying out this one.1991 was a year of disasters. I know. I was on the responding end of calamities in Bangladesh and other countries in Asia that year. What happened in Bangladesh in 1991 is disturbingly similar to what happened in South Asia on December 26 of this year. In April 1991, a typhoon ripped through the Bay of Bengal sending a tsunami like tidal bore into the coastal villages of Bangladesh. There was no warning system - 140,000 people were killed. In some cases, entire villages were wiped out.The first response to an emergency of this proportion is to help the survivors - water, food, medicine and shelter are essential for saving lives. Bangladesh has a horrific infrastructure with one poorly built road from Dhaka to Chittagong down to Cox Bazaar where the staging for relief efforts took place. This complicated immediate efforts of getting supplies to the needy.Oxfam, who I worked for, however, had a long history of working with Bangladeshi non-governmental agencies who were able to respond immediately to the emergency in the affected areas. I visited Bangladesh six months after the typhoon to look at efforts to rebuild communities devastated the previous April.In Maheshkala, I visited a village of 2,000 people, where in April 5,000 people had once lived. Through Oxfam’s support, the village had been able to build a massive dike protecting the village from the Bay of Bengal, two new water systems had been installed, a school had been rebuilt and a number of homes erected. More importantly, the salt water dikes surrounding the village had been restored, allowing the villagers to begin harvesting salt again, which they sold for income.Most of the work had been done by the villagers, through “Food for Work” schemes. In six months, people had restored their lives through hard work and outside support; kids were back in school, adults were earning incomes again, life had returned to normal. There was a strong sense of purpose and accomplishment in the villages I visited.While relief agencies worked to meet the short-term needs of the people affected by the disaster, efforts were also made to create an emergency response system for future emergencies along the coast of Bangladesh.A series of permanent typhoon shelters were erected along the coast where people could go to in an emergency. These structures are now being used as schools and community centers on a day to day basis and serve as relief shelters during times of natural disaster. Built fifteen feet off the ground, the concrete shelters are be able to withstand the brute force of a cyclone or a tidal wave.I believe the response to the Bangladesh emergency was successful in that both short and long term needs were addressed, as the emergency response took place in the context of the affected communities future development.While pledges of support are coming in from all over the world to help India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia cope with the aftermath of the tsunami, our success in responding to the emergency will be measured in our ability to meet the short and long term needs of the people affected in a systematic way that saves lives and restores their way of life.

From 1991-1994, the author was the director of Oxfam Hong Kong.

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