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On Point

The Challenge of the South Asia Tsunami


by Austin Bay
January 11, 2005

July 11, 1999: We'd just finished the morning briefing and were leaving the command tent when the earthquake struck. I was serving as deputy commander of a U.S. Army Reserve Hurricane Mitch recovery operation in southeastern Guatemala, near the city of Puerto Barrios. Overnight, a tropical depression had dumped 10 inches of rain on our base. The soggy ground shook, bricks toppled as the walls of nearby buildings swayed, and I fell to my hands and knees, landing on a wooden loading pallet. The shake seemed to last forever. I remember thinking, "I am bouncing on this damn thing like a rabbit."

Our recovery and reconstruction aid mission quickly became an emergency relief operation. The task force commander, a reserve colonel from Dallas who is also a civil engineer, helped the Guatemalans with damage assessment. Our medical company provided emergency aid to the entire region.

The Indian Ocean mega-quake and tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, dwarf the magnitude 6.6 Guatemalan quake I experienced. There's no comparison in casualties. The December tsunami's death toll has reached 160,000. The Guatemalan casualties were fortunately low, with two killed and a few score injured. Hurricane Mitch, however, killed at least 20,000 when it struck in fall 1998 -- a terrible natural disaster.

The Puerto Barrios quake was still a heartbreaker. It damaged three months' worth of reconstruction work on river dikes that Hurricane Mitch had destroyed. At a meeting five days after the quake, a Guatemalan Coast Guard captain -- leaning on a pair of crutches -- told me with a despondent shrug: "This is Central America, Colonel. Hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes. We get ahead in one place, another disaster pulls us backward."

Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly told President George W. Bush that the tsunami left Indonesia's Aceh province "like something the equivalent of Hiroshima." It will take a long-term aid commitment to restore the Indian Ocean region. Bush told employees of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that the tsunami aid mission "is one of those projects that's not going to happen overnight. The intense scrutiny (by the media) may dissipate ... but our focus has got to stay on this part of the world."

There are arguably four types of aid: emergency, recovery, reconstruction and developmental. In the two weeks since the tsunami, we've seen a remarkably agile and effective display of emergency aid (medical, food, rescue) provided by the U.S. and Australian militaries and the Red Cross. Once the immediate needs are met, the recovery phase begins -- reorganizing basic services, opening permanent supply routes, reuniting families. There's a hazy line between recovery and reconstruction -- but reconstruction aid intends to rebuild damaged infrastructure. Smart reconstruction aims to "rebuild better" (stronger materials, better location, etc.) to reduce the threat of future natural disasters.

Reconstruction begins to blend with developmental aid -- aid designed to ultimately permit "self-development" by locals. Education and economic investment are part of a long-term developmental aid program. The Guatemalan task force I served with drilled new water wells and built new school rooms -- reconstruction stretching into developmental work.

The tsunami's Hiroshima-like destruction leaves us with an extraordinary challenge. Wealthy nations have been generous -- the billions raised are a blessing -- but sincere emotional responses and initial charity must be followed by sustained, effective action.

That means a lot of sweat and toil by men and women working for both government agencies and civilian organizations.

Effective sustained action also means sustained oversight. Unfortunately, the United Nations has a poor track record for managing big-ticket operations. "The Lords of Poverty" by British journalist Graham Hancock (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989) offers a lesson in the pitfalls of "big development" projects that aren't held accountable for results -- and sometimes aren't held accountable for funds.

USAID, fortunately, has a good track record for managing its missions. A retired USAID official told me that's because the U.S. Congress demands accountability. This suggests that tsunami reconstruction and developmental aid programs should be organized and led by a "coalition of the accountable."

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