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Can lessons learned from the Asian tsunami help Haiti?

By Jim Boulden, CNN
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Tsunami lessons for Haiti
  • December 26, 2004, tsunami killed an estimated 228,000 people in 14 countries
  • UK report highlights need to seek expert advice early on for reconstruction process
  • Afterwards the U.N. introduced the "Cluster System" to coordinate relief efforts
  • U.N. Secretary-General Ban: Twelve cluster systems already functioning in Haiti
  • Haiti
  • Earthquakes
  • Tsunamis

London, England (CNN) -- Just weeks before a major earthquake rocked Haiti, a British disaster committee released a report noting the lessons learned in rebuilding after a massive tsunami destroyed large swaths of coastline around the Indian Ocean five years ago.

The report, from Britain's Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), focused on the efforts to rebuild the Indonesian region of Aceh, which was hardest hit by the December 26, 2004, tsunami. An estimated 228,000 people in 14 countries were killed in the disaster -- mainly in India, Indonesia, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand, according to the United Nations.

The "Lessons from Aceh" report said more than $600 million in private donations was raised by 13 British charities through the DEC. About 42 percent of that money was used in Aceh, mostly to build some 14,000 new homes.

While that was a noble effort, the report said that some of the houses later had be retrofitted or even knocked down and rebuilt because the rush to do good superseded the need to think long-term.

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"One of the key things that came up in Aceh was the need to design the houses and schools and health centers that were being built to take account of the fact that Aceh is an area of high seismic risk, of earthquake risk," said Jo da Silva, author of the report and director of international development at the engineering firm Arup.

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While charities and other non-governmental organizations are often the first to begin rebuilding homes and other structures in the aftermath of a natural disaster, the report notes that experts in construction and other sectors should be brought into the early planning for rebuilding to make sure that structures are sound against future environmental risks.

"Post-disaster reconstruction is a complex process. It requires multi-sectoral involvement, very significant resources and a wide range of skills. Many of these skills are not typically available within humanitarian organizations," the report said. "For a humanitarian agency, the decision to engage in reconstruction (and what type of assistance to provide) needs to be taken cognizant of the complexities and must recognize the need for expert advice."

Da Silva says while there is pressure to "return things to normal" in Haiti, unfortunately many people will likely be displaced for longer than desired. That's because it will take a little longer to build housing that can withstand hurricanes and flooding, usually a much bigger problem in the Caribbean.

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There are other lessons from the post-tsunami rebuilding that can be used in Haiti, Da Silva said, but there are many differences in the situations. While the tsunami was unprecedented as a massive natural disaster, the interior of Indonesia and Thailand were largely unaffected and their governments were left intact. That greatly helped the aid effort and meant aid agencies could get supplies from nearby.

Many of Haiti's governmental offices and buildings were destroyed in the earthquake, and the Haitian government structure itself was fragile even before the temblor hit.

The aftermath of the 2004 tsunami also brought another change in relief efforts. After aid agencies from around the world tripped over each other in the rush to help the affected areas, the United Nations created a program called the "Cluster System" to coordinate relief efforts.

Under the program, U.N. agencies coordinate the work of aid agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to eliminate redundant efforts and confusion.

This approach helped put experts in water and sanitation on the ground in Haiti within days of the earthquake, according to Paul Sherlock of the charity group Oxfam.

"There are meetings every day at 3 p.m. at the Ministry of Water in Port-au-Prince, in the offices which have not been too badly damaged, so that all water and sanitation agencies will go to that meeting and coordinate how they best respond," he explained.

Sherlock said the "Cluster" approach worked well during the Gaza crisis and the Philippines' flooding last year, but the Haitian earthquake is by far the biggest test of the program.

ActionAid, an NGO based in South Africa, criticized the "Cluster System" following the Pakistani earthquake in 2006.

In a report on its Web site, ActionAid said "the U.N. failed to provide Urdu translators in coordination meetings in the aftermath of the Kashmir earthquake. This was just one of the shortcomings of the U.N.'s new 'cluster' approach to humanitarian relief coordination -- piloted in Pakistan -- that, in many ways, ignored or excluded local organizations and groups responding to the crisis."

ActionAid said the tents provided by the "housing cluster" did not stand up to the winter weather, an echo to one lesson learned from aid given after the tsunami.

"In Sri Lanka, for instance, people sent lots of tents, but many of the tents were very suitable for alpine mountaineering and wholly unsuitable for tropical environments," said da Silva.

The global aid response has been criticized in some quarters, but Oxfam predicts that having relief groups work together under the "Cluster System" will make the response to the Haitian earthquake more rapid than that of the 2004 tsunami.

Sherlock said for the past five years, for instance, the water and sanitation cluster has been working hard to make sure the equipment brought in by the various groups is compatible, so that pipes and tubes should fit together when assembled in Haiti.

Twelve cluster systems are up and functioning in Haiti already, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced Tuesday.

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