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10 Years After the Tsunami: What We Lost and What We Learned

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What I remember most of the first hours after learning about the tsunami was radio silence. Aceh, it seemed, had ceased to exist. The limited infrastructure in Indonesia’s northernmost province was decimated and none of the survivors was able to update the outside world.
To understand the scope of what had happened I flew to Aceh the following day. Since then I have carried with me indelible images of survivors who had nothing left but the clothes on their bodies. There were remnants of lives swept away, of loved ones who disappeared, and a desert of mud and debris beyond repair.
The death toll kept on rising for weeks. In the end, of the over 230,000 people who died in 14 countries, 220,000 were from Aceh. We estimated the disaster had caused damage worth $4.45 billion.
Ten years after the tsunami, I remember the loss of lives not only as the tragedy it was, but as a moment that changed the way the world manages disasters. I take some consolation from the fact that people survive disasters more often today because of the lessons we learned from the tsunami that affected so many of my fellow Indonesians. 
There are three conclusions that are critical to our experience.                  

First, rebuilding goes far beyond bricks and mortar. When we rebuild a house, we are rebuilding a home. When we recover from disaster we are rebuilding lives and livelihoods. We need to encourage people to have trust in their future and kindle their spirit to live. Communities need to decide how they rebuild. And we need to protect the vulnerable, like widows and children.

Second, governments need to own their recovery and be in the driver’s seat. Many Indonesians came forward to help generously. And the outpouring of global support was unprecedented. Individuals, organizations, corporations, and governments enabled us to spend $7 billion on rebuilding – and the focus was on building back better than before.

Indonesians are deeply grateful to the world for being so generous when we needed it most. And I understand that giving cannot come without conditions to safeguard this generosity. But it needs to be sequenced properly and fit into a plan that works for local communities.
So when millions of dollars and thousands of humanitarian workers poured into Indonesia, we quickly faced the challenge of coordinating our own bureaucracy with the multitudes of approaches and priorities the donor community wanted to pursue.
Corruption and misuse were concerns. I convinced the World Bank to manage a fund in which donors would pool their contributions. It was worth nearly $700 million, the largest fund the Bank ever managed. And we created an independent recovery and reconstruction agency.

Many felt the agency would slow down rebuilding and overlay it with burdensome bureaucracy, but instead it maintained a sense of urgency and strong leadership that made a lasting difference.
Third, we needed to ensure that we were better prepared for the next disaster. Disaster risk management was in its infancy when the tsunami hit. Today it is a critical component of development programs in disaster-prone areas. The lessons we learned have helped countries and the global community to prepare, prevent, and respond more effectively than ever before.
After the earthquake in Haiti that killed up to 230,000 people in 2009, we used experience from Aceh to build houses to withstand some seismic shocks. When typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda hit the Philippines in 2013, the international community, including the World Bank, was able to respond better and faster because we had learned how to coordinate a global response.
Although many people in Aceh are still poor and vulnerable, the province resembles nothing like the place I saw the day after the tsunami hit. Every visitor to Aceh can see new houses, schools, roads, and government buildings. One of the most encouraging outcomes after the tsunami was the end of decades of conflict in Aceh. The tragedy united people and a country, ending fighting that we had not been able to stop before. It makes our post-tsunami reconstruction even more successful.
We won’t be able to stop disasters from happening. On the contrary, climate change may increase the frequency and severity of floods, droughts and storms. But we are better equipped today to prepare for them and reduce their impact.
Sri Mulyani Indrawati is the Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer of the World Bank. She was the development planning minister of Indonesia when the tsunami hit on December 26, 2004. This blog post was first published on the Huffington Post.


Sri Mulyani Indrawati

Former Managing Director and COO

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