Walking the last mile together

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Walking the last mile together

On December 26, 2004, the world experienced one of the deadliest natural disasters ever recorded. A 9.1-magnitude earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, triggered a massive tsunami that directly affected 14 countries in Asia and Africa. The widespread impact of the resulting waves led to 230,000 deaths and massive human suffering.

Ten years later, we come together as a community to commemorate the loss of those who fell victim to the wrath of nature and to recognize the suffering from the natural disasters that have hit our region. This month, several affected countries will hold remembrance ceremonies for the Indian Ocean tsunami. This is an opportunity to raise public awareness in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond on the importance of building greater resilience to natural disasters, and how we can collectively work to maintain this momentum by enhancing our capacities to deal with such catastrophic events.

The 2004 tsunami led to an unprecedented global outpouring of support, and a key lesson from the human tragedy was the importance of early warnings. When the wave struck, early warning systems were inadequate. As a result, many received no warning except the sight of the wall of water rushing toward them. Our region must never again be caught so off guard.

In the aftermath, the Asia-Pacific region embarked on a collective effort to develop mechanisms for a better early warning system to reduce the impact of future disasters. These efforts have intensified over the intervening years in Asia and the Pacific, the most disaster-prone region in the world. Building resilience in this area is not an option, but an imperative to safeguard and promote sustainable development, lives and livelihoods.

The Indian Ocean tsunami fundamentally changed how we deal with natural disasters, and has had a profound impact on policies and budgets as well as operational and technical work. Importantly, the tsunami shaped the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), which was adopted in Kobe, Japan, just weeks after the disaster.

Real progress has been made in implementing the HFA and building Asia-Pacific resilience. Governance has been strengthened, with more than half of Asia-Pacific countries enacting legislation and creating institutions to deal specifically with disaster risk management. Budgetary allocations for mitigating risks from disasters have been increased in some countries. Institutional capacities for early warnings and preparedness have also been strengthened, but more must be done. The countries of Asia and the Pacific are redoubling efforts to reinforce implementation, educate vulnerable communities and address underlying risks.

The regional commitment to early warning is reflected in the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation Systems (IOTWS), which became operational in 2011, with Australia, Indonesia and India in charge of issuing regional tsunami bulletins. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) projects that this new system will save an average of 1,000 lives each year for the next 100 years.

On April 11, 2012, an earthquake of magnitude-8.6 off the coast of Indonesia provided a useful test of the IOTWS. Within 10 minutes of the quake, the countries at risk had received bulletins with tsunami warning information from the three service providers. In turn, millions of people heard warnings and moved quickly to higher ground. Fortunately, the quake did not trigger a tsunami that day, but the experience suggests that real progress has been made since 2004.

At the national level, several countries have also made major investments in early warning systems, including setting up state-of-the-art centers, which have contributed to the Asia-Pacific region becoming a global hub for excellence in this field.

The tsunami also led to the creation of innovative funding mechanisms. Thanks to the Thai government’s contribution of $10 million, the ESCAP Trust Fund for Tsunami, Disaster and Climate Preparedness was launched in 2005. Pooling resources from multiple donors to strengthen multi-hazard early warning systems, the fund has supported 26 projects benefitting 19 Indian Ocean and Southeast Asian countries. The fund helped establish the IOTWS, and has provided targeted support to countries facing high risks that have limited national capacity.

Despite this progress, we must not forget the importance of local level, community-based risk reduction. This “last mile” of early warning systems - the vulnerable communities at risk - remains a critical gap in need of additional attention and resources. It must be a high priority to ensure that the most vulnerable communities receive timely and understandable warnings that they know how to act upon in times of crisis.

So 10 years on, how much better prepared is the Asia-Pacific region for a tsunami? Considerably better than we were in 2004, but the full answer will only be known one day in the future, during the first few hours after a strong earthquake has caused a new tsunami. To prepare for that day, regional cooperation is essential, especially in early warning, as natural hazards know no borders.

Working together to reduce disaster risk and build resilience is comparable to pushing a big rock uphill together - if we do not constantly move forward, we risk sliding backward. It involves developing a culture of preparedness and cooperation across the region, and shifting from a focus on response to a greater emphasis on prevention.

In June this year, the Thai government hosted the 6th Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction to consolidate the regional voice for a successor to the HFA agreement. As countries from around the world prepare to meet in Sendai, Japan, in March, the Asia-Pacific region will bring our essential lessons and experience to help shape this new global framework.

The author is under-secretary general of the United Nations and executive secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. This op-ed was co-authored by Tanasak Patimapragorn, deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, Thailand; Harsh Vardhan, union minister for ministry of science & technology, India; Mahinda Amaraweera, minister of disaster management, Sri Lanka; Mohamed Zuhair, minister of state, ministry of defense and national security, the Maldives; and Syamsul Maarif, minister of National Agency for Disaster Management, Indonesia.

by Shamshad Akhtar

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