Remembering the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami: Transforming shared vulnerabilities through better preparedness

Article co-authored by Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and Mr. Sihasak Phuangketkeow, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand

On 26 December 2004, the world witnessed a devastating natural disaster with an impact that still reverberates nine years later. One of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded struck off the west coast of Aceh, Indonesia, triggering massive tsunami waves that cut a path of destruction across borders. The lack of tsunami warning systems in the region left coastal communities unprepared for the enormity of the devastation as cascading walls of water swallowed up lives and livelihoods.

The Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami killed over 230,000 people, and up to five million people lost their homes or access to food and water. As the extent of the damage became clear, the world responded with unprecedented generosity and resolve. The Thai Government played an important leadership role in the aftermath of the disaster by hosting the Ministerial Meeting on Regional Cooperation on Tsunami Early Warning Arrangements in Phuket in January 2005. At the meeting, Thailand pledged a donation of US $10 million as seed money to establish a voluntary trust fund to strengthen national and regional capacities in tsunami early warnings. Partnering with ESCAP, Thailand established the Tsunami Regional Trust Fund to catalyze much needed regional cooperation in preparing for such disasters. It was an expression of the strong regional solidarity felt by the people of Thailand, and placed the country at the forefront of global efforts to reduce disaster risk. Later, Sweden, Turkey, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Nepal joined as donors to the Trust Fund. This multilateral approach of countries coming together in times of great need was an excellent example of regional cooperation in action.

Nine years later, the Trust Fund, renamed as the Trust Fund for Tsunami, Disaster and Climate Preparedness, continues to serve as a catalyst for strengthened early warning systems at the regional, national and local levels in Indian Ocean and Southeast Asian countries. Building coastal community resilience and strengthening last mile early warning systems have been a hallmark of the Trust Fund as seen in Krabi, Thailand, where over 2,000 local community members, civil society representatives and officials were trained on disaster risk management. In West Sumatra, Indonesia, the Trust Fund supported over 40 villages to develop their own local disaster management plans. Today, early warning systems in the region are more integrated and robust, and communities are better prepared, even though gaps persist and significant additional investments are still needed.

The pioneering Regional Integrated Multi-Hazard Early Warning System for Africa and Asia (RIMES) that was established by the Trust Fund provides innovative early warning tools and services that reduce risks and save lives. RIMES works with Governments and partners to build forecasting capacity and make warning information more timely and accurate, so that the communities at risk are warned as early and as precisely as possible of potential disasters. The Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System provides timely and detailed information on potential tsunamis to countries across Asia and the Pacific, and will save an estimated 1,000 lives per year over the next 100 years. These types of targeted investments though the Trust Fund, with countries taking clear ownership and operational responsibilities, creates a sense of regional solidarity in the face of increasing natural disasters. Asia-Pacific is the most disaster-prone region in the world, and the region must confront these challenges together, transforming shared vulnerability into better preparedness.

In 2008, when Myanmar was struck by Cyclone Nargis, the region once more rose to the challenge. In the immediate aftermath, the United Nations and Thailand worked closely with ASEAN and its regional frameworks to support the Government in responding to the needs of 2.4 million affected people. ESCAP mobilized its multi-disciplinary expertise to bridge the gap between relief, recovery and development efforts and activated the Trust Fund to strengthen multi-hazard early warning, working closely with the Government and other partners. This process reached an important milestone earlier this month, with ESCAP transferring ownership of the Sittwe seismic station to the Government of Myanmar. The Sittwe station plays a crucial role in regional and national tsunami warning systems, and has led to reduced risk along the coast of Myanmar and neighboring countries.

In Asia and the Pacific, we know that natural disasters can strike at anytime, anywhere, and with little warning. Just two years ago, Thailand experienced the worst floods in more than 50 years, which left thousands homeless and temporarily shuttered hundreds of businesses. In the midst of the disaster, ESCAP and Thailand worked closely with other countries and UN partners to obtain near real-time satellite imagery, which helped manage the impact of the floods. Once again, regional solidarity and multilateral cooperation proved effective in supporting the national response. It is therefore very timely that Thailand and member countries sponsored a resolution adopted at the 69th ESCAP Commission this year on “Enhancing regional cooperation for building resilience to disasters in Asia and the Pacific”, with a view to enhancing regional cooperation and strengthening the Trust Fund through financial contributions and technical cooperation. Together, Thailand and the region emerged stronger and better prepared for future floods and other disasters, also a testament to the resilience of the peoples of Asia and the Pacific.

Building on this experience, in May 2013 countries in the region adopted a historic five-year plan of action for the use of space technologies to enhance disaster risk reduction. As part of the plan, it is now standard practice for space faring countries in the region to provide near real-time satellite imagery to affected countries in the immediate aftermath of disasters. This powerful regional mechanism, coordinated by ESCAP, assists relief and recovery efforts to the most vulnerable communities among us, most recently in Tacloban following Typhoon Haiyan.

And just last month, the region took another crucial step by putting in place a monitoring and warning mechanism for drought, a silent killer in Asia and the Pacific. Over the past few decades, droughts have affected more than 1.3 billion people and caused economic damage of over $53 billion in the region. This groundbreaking space application mechanism will enhance the capacity of countries to issue early warnings before the drought is visible to the human eye, and is yet another example of Asia-Pacific countries working together, to be better prepared.

Building resilience to natural disasters is one of the most pressing contemporary challenges facing our region. We must be prepared for future calamities caused by the impact of climate change, be they another large tsunami, another typhoon or another drought. When that day comes, we must ensure that the region is fully equipped with effective monitoring and early warning systems, so that vulnerable people are brought to safety and losses are minimized. More needs to be done, and done now, to better prepare the region to face such disasters. Since the 2004 Tsunami, Thailand and its partners have set a powerful example by showing how regional solidarity combined with multilateral cooperation can be effective.