Tsunami lessons for Tohoku from Tamil Nadu

What can Japan learn from the devastation wrought on the southernmost Indian state in 2004?


Special to The Japan Times

On Dec. 26, 2004, a massive tsunami blasted across the Indian Ocean, cutting a swath of destruction through communities in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India that claimed a staggering 230,000 lives.

Work stations: Fishing boats, many new after the 2004 Asian tsunami, at Mahabalipuram.

As Japan approaches the first anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, are there any lessons to be learned from the 2004 catastrophe?
Complaints in Japan about the slow progress of reconstruction and arguments over improving disaster resilience are familiar battles in other tsunami-devastated communities. Such places have also confronted grandiose plans and good intentions that are not always in sync with local needs and desires.
Reports from the field and personal observations suggest that in some cases the NGO response to the March 11 disasters has not been as effective as it might have been. That appears to be because of inadequate coordination, turf battles, misplaced priorities and insufficient local input — problems that were also evident in Tamil Nadu following the 2004 tsunami.
Tsunami bonus
I had a chance to visit BEDROC (Building and Enabling Disaster Resilience of Coastal Communities), an Indian civil society organization with 22 staff working on long-term post-tsunami responses in Tamil Nadu. It continues the project-based interventions carried out by the NGO Co-ordination and Resource Center (NCRC), which was established after the tsunami and is based in Nagapattinam, a coastal village that suffered widespread tsunami damage and 6,000 deaths.
BEDROC focuses on bolstering the disaster-resilience of vulnerable coastal communities by building up local capacities for risk-reduction and disaster response. It receives some funding from Japan-based Asia Community Trust and conducts various projects ranging from livelihood-intervention initiatives to water-management programs that emphasize small-scale, village-based interventions rather than centralized, large-scale public-works undertakings.
Annie George, CEO of BEDROC, explained that the 187 km of Tamil Nadu's coastline affected by the tsunami had long been neglected by government authorities, and there were few schools, hospitals or roads. Prior to the tsunami, the region lacked almost everything and government offices were understaffed because it was an undesirable posting. After the tsunami, the government transferred high-level officials from the Indian Administrative Service to organize the disaster response and reconstruction efforts — and also provided considerable funding.
She lauded the openness of these central government coordinators who met with NGOs frequently to share information and cooperate. They helped facilitate the establishment of the NGO Co-ordination Center on Jan. 1, 2005 — just a week after the tsunami hit. Eventually, more than 500 domestic and international NGOs conducted projects in the region.
In Tamil Nadu the government quickly issued a directive that established the legal basis for cooperation with NGOs — a partnership that involved the government providing land and infrastructure and the NGOs building housing for displaced survivors.

Moving force: Annie George, the CEO of BEDROC (Building and Enabling Disaster Resilience of Coastal Communities).

Under the plan, displaced households would receive the title deeds to a plot of land in a safer place provided they signed away their rights to the land where they lived when the tsunami hit. Virtually everyone signed. They then received new land and new housing — but very few vacated the land they had signed away.
In many cases they rebuilt on this land. They did so because those most affected by the tsunami were fishermen who needed to be close to the coast. They rationalized that they needed places to store nets and other fishing equipment on the beaches where they kept their boats, so it made sense to rebuild damaged homes there. Meanwhile, the new homes gave them a sense of security for their families.
As a result, some fishermen emerged from the tsunami with two houses and plots of land — and also received new boats. So the disaster left many far better off than before.
Why didn't the government crack down? George explained that the local government was unable to enforce the ban on beachfront rebuilding because it went against popular sentiments and, "With elections hanging over their heads, voters had power over the authorities."
Intervention and tunnel vision
George believes too many NGOs suffer from tunnel vision and are motivated to engage in projects that they can take credit for and use for self-promotion whether or not such projects represent the most effective use of resources.
There is also considerable overlap, turf fighting and duplication of efforts by NGOs that don't prioritize local needs and interests.
In George's view, cooperation is not a strong point of NGOs, and in too many cases it is institutional imperatives and the need to justify outlays and raise more funds that drives their disaster-relief efforts. They also squander considerable money on inappropriate and unsustainable projects because they act individually in an ad hoc manner, and don't coordinate programs connected with a broader plan.
Initially, it's crucial to get people onto their feet by giving them cash for work related to recovery efforts such as clearing debris. This ensures that people have money to spend and can choose how to spend it. But BEDROC asserts that it is crucial from the outset to ensure that immediate livelihood-recovery efforts feed into a second stage of livelihood sustainability and security.
George argues that interventions are most effective when they are planned from a long-term perspective and focus on strengthening traditional livelihoods. However, NGOs frequently favor nurturing alternative livelihoods, but these are often unsustainable and depend on continuing support and guidance that is not always forthcoming. In addition, many organizations involved with disaster relief do not stick around and implement "off the shelf" programs that are not suited to local needs and capacities.
George cited the case of a village that was offered funding for various projects formulated by NGOs, but the village head negotiated with the donors to pool the funds and use the money to drill six wells to serve the community.
Previously, the village had lacked water for agriculture, so many laborers had to commute elsewhere and the children had to drop out of school to help support their families. But because the village now had a plentiful water supply, it could refocus on agricultural production and create local jobs and keep the kids in school. According to George, that was one rare case of donors listening to what local people think will work best for them.
Good intentions
There have been accusations that discrimination marred disaster recovery efforts and that lower-caste groups and women were systematically neglected.
George emphatically rejected these assessments, saying "It's absolute nonsense. There were no deliberate exclusions." She pointed out that with so many international aid organizations and workers on the ground — and given their commitment to fighting discrimination and promoting women's rights — it would have been impossible to exclude lower-caste groups and women from disaster-relief efforts.
Initially, relief and rehabilitation efforts focused on the fishing villages closest to the ocean that had been most devastated, then moved progressively inland. So parachute journalists and short-stay scholars might have got the wrong impression, George said.
"There was a geospatial element rather than caste discrimination that prioritized the most vulnerable communities," she explained, "but communities of dalits (formerly "untouchables") living behind the fishing villages also benefited."
So, although the dalit villages are marginalized from an overall development perspective, George contends they were not neglected in terms of disaster relief and recovery. There were riots, but, she said, those broke out in fishing communities, and did not involve dalit people, or result from discriminatory allocation of recovery support.

Tamil Nadu at a glance

Located in the southeast of India along the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean, Tamil Nadu is the 11th largest of the republic's 28 states and, with a population of 72 million out of the nation's roughly 1.2 billion population, it is the seventh most populous.
Tamil Nadu has the fourth-largest state economy in India and is the most urbanized, at 44 percent of the population. Its capital, Chennai (formerly Madras), is India's fourth-largest city, with a population of some 9 million in the metropolitan area.
Although the Berlin-based, nonpartisan civil group Transparency International rates it the second most corrupt state in India, Tamil Nadu consistently ranks high in the top 10 states for overall wellbeing as judged by the United Nations Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, literacy (80 percent), education and standards of living. It is also home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Tamil Nadu has a semiarid tropical climate and can be scorching in the January to May dry season, which explains the attraction of the elevated and verdant Western Ghats on the border of Kerala state. Its sole monsoon season is between October and December.
The official language is Tamil, a classical Dravidian language, and 88 percent of the population is Hindu; experts believe that the ancient Indus Valley civilization, the cradle of India, was Dravidian. Although there is no longer agitation for separatism, Dravidian-identity politics dominate the region, drawing on grievances among many Tamils toward New Delhi and the nation's Hindi-speaking majority.

In George's view, the NGOs' good intentions about promoting social change did more harm than good — while nonetheless highlighting the need to distinguish between disaster relief and rehabilitation projects and efforts to promote development and social engineering.
In Tamil Nadu, many NGOs sought to rectify caste- and gender-discrimination while helping in reconstruction efforts.
These interventions in some cases had sorry consequences for the intended beneficiaries because they challenged existing norms in patriarchal villages organized on caste lines. Then, once the NGOs departed, the intended beneficiaries faced resentment and could no longer rely on the traditional safety net and customary support mechanisms. Hence the NGOs undermined the old system, and in doing so eroded trust within communities and polarized people.
For example, NGOs promoted the rights of crew members on the fishing boats, targeting the traditional system of catch-allocation that disproportionately rewards the ship owner by giving him shares for his work, the boat, the engine and the nets — on the assumption that he maintains everything.
However, in urging fishermen to demand an equal share, NGOs upset that traditional distribution system. Indeed, as George stressed, the issue divided communities and undermined the reciprocal patron-client relations that are crucial to life in villages that live on the edge of subsistence.
George asserts the NGOs were naive and shortsighted, and that they overestimated their ability to effect change — and how entrenched existing patterns are. The outcome was that they damaged communities through well-intentioned efforts that left their intended beneficiaries even more vulnerable.
George believes it would be better for NGOs to stick to disaster rehabilitation rather than hastily try to promote social reforms. "They misused the opportunity to intervene (for reconstruction) to deal with longstanding development issues," she said, while lamenting their hasty departures.
Although there were no specific emergency plans in place for vulnerable communities in Tamil Nadu in 2004, local people were familiar with cyclones and flooding, so already knew about local safe, elevated spots that evolved into refugee zones.

George believes this local knowledge is the foundation for improving a locality's disaster-limitation capacity through improved information dissemination. Hence the sudden "tsunami-bonus" introduction of televisions to most households in the area may not be an unalloyed benefit, but it does help spread information that can improve disaster responses.
In George's view, the software of knowledge is more important than the hardware of sea-wall defenses, and she opposes such construction because it is expensive, creates a false sense of security and is often ineffective.
Sea walls, she said, are an example of amplifying natural disaster through human error, while poor development policies compound the negative consequences. "Officials then try to hide their mistakes by blaming everything on the natural disaster," she said.
BEDROC found that the quickest and most effective disaster response following the tsunami came from local communities. Consequently, the organization advocates decentralized approaches to building disaster resilience as a way of empowering communities while cutting both costs and corruption and also fine-tuning programs to meet local needs. Promoting transparency and accountability, however, runs afoul of the Public Works Department, where contract fiddling is a refined and resilient art.
Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan. He is also Editor of "Natural Disaster and Nuclear Crisis: Response and Recovery in Japan After 3/11" (Routledge), which will be published within a few weeks.

Instructive reports offer post-tsunami insights 

I would like to draw attention to two fine studies about the post-2004 tsunami experience that are very relevant to the ongoing assessment of the March 11 response, reconstruction efforts and the desire to nurture more disaster-resilience.
One, published in 2009, is a report titled "Building Local Capacities for Disaster Response and Risk Reduction: An Oxfam-Bedroc Study" (www.bedroc.in).
This joint study focused on two communities in Tamil Nadu and their contrasting experiences with disaster and recovery. One of its key findings is that the first responders to disaster are the most effective and are mostly people from the affected community. Hence, improving disaster-resilience hinges on building local capacity.
The report concludes that, "Interventions for economic restoration were seen to be most successful wherever they have been aligned with the traditional livelihoods."
It also cautions against poorly thought out and inadequately supported interventions that seek to promote social engineering.
The second fine study I would like to draw attention to is titled "The Asian Tsunami: Aid and Reconstruction After a Disaster" (Edward Elgar Publishing and the Asian Development Bank Institute; 2010).
The case studies here by Sisira Jayasuriya and Peter McCawley cover Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand and provide a broader look at the largest natural disaster in recent history — one that claimed the lives of 230,000 people and devastated countless Indian Ocean coastal communities.
The sheer scale of that event spurred a massive humanitarian response totaling some $17 billion, and here the authors assess whether the aid was effective and what the lessons to be learned are about improving disaster-resilience.
The key lesson is the need to "go local" to improve grassroots-level disaster-resilience, since interventions work more effectively by listening to communities and approaching disaster-preparedness and recovery from their perspective.
The authors also point to the lack of effective coordination among a multiplicity of international and local organizations that often have competing or overlapping agendas. However, they offer no clear means of achieving effective coordination.
The report states, "Many individual agencies paid lip service to the need for coordination, but were never keen to be coordinated."
Competition among agencies, and self-promotion, often come at the expense of the best interests of the aid recipients. The authors stress the need to manage unrealistic expectations, to improve communication and to promote greater transparency and accountability without marginalizing local actors.
They conclude that the aid had a positive impact, but it could have achieved better outcomes with better planning. Hence, while encouraging governments to improve disaster-preparedness through enhanced local participation, the report also admonishes international donors to carefully think through their objectives and how to achieve them — and to coordinate more effectively with local counterparts.