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Assessing Tsunami Recovery One Year After

December 26, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Now, for a broader assessment of the progress and problems, we turn to two people who recently worked in the region.

Eric Schwartz is the United Nations’ deputy special envoy for tsunami recovery. He visited Sri Lanka and Banda Aceh, Indonesia, earlier this month with former President Bill Clinton. And Charles McCormack is president and CEO of Save the Children. He was in Banda Aceh in late November. He joins us tonight from the hurricane-stricken disaster area on the Gulf Coast of the United States. Welcome gentlemen, to you both.

Eric Schwartz, one year later, 216,000 people, latest count, dead or missing. How would you assess where we stand right now?

ERIC SCHWARTZ: I think by and large there are very significant signs of progress. In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami basic relief activities by the United Nations, non-governmental organizations and others helped to ensure against an outbreak of epidemics large scale loss of lives.

In the months following, international agencies, national governments built transitional shelters, transitional health centers. There is now construction of thousands of permanent homes, permanent health centers; there is work on an early warning system region-wide, so by and large I think that the story is an encouraging one. But the challenges ahead are enormous.

GWEN IFILL: Charles McCormack in your work with Save the Children you visited and worked with several of these kinds of disasters even though this one seems to be off the scale. How would you compare it?

CHARLES McCORMACK: Well, this has been the most successful response I’ve seen in my 35 years. Of course, our hearts go out to the 160,000 people in Aceh who died in just a few minutes, and we lost family members of our staff and 20 of our midwives.

But for the rest, there were not epidemics, there has not been malnutrition, people have been sheltered. So if you were among the survivors, life has really improved significantly over the past year.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. McCormack, I read somewhere today that after the first 30 seconds of this disaster that no one else died, which is to say that there were enough, there was enough money brought in, there was enough medical attention paid, that lives were not lost after the disaster itself.

CHARLES McCORMACK: That’s exactly right. And in so many cases there are as many lives lost after the disaster to typhus, typhoid, malaria, as to the crisis itself. And that simply did not happen here. If you survived the tsunami, you are still alive today.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Schwartz, he mentioned money, Mr. McCormack did, how much money altogether from all the out swelling of donations and private and governmental groups was raised?

ERIC SCHWARTZ: In sum, I would say about $13.5 billion was raised, at least in terms of pledges. And I would say a majority of those pledges have been realized. And I think we need to do more work to ensure that all that money comes across. But that is roughly commensurate with what the requirements were.

So the challenge in this instance has not been the magnitude of the resources but rather, given the huge number of actors, non-governmental organizations, governments, international financial institutions, everyone really trying to help. Coordination in my view is the key challenge, especially in the months and years ahead, coordination and maintaining the focus on recovery.

GWEN IFILL: You talk about coordination, are you talking about what, there are dozens of groups on the ground who are trying to do the right thing but they are not necessarily all talking to one another?

ERIC SCHWARTZ: I would say there are hundreds of groups on the ground trying to do the right thing. And one of the reasons why the secretary-general appointed former President Clinton as special envoy for tsunami recovery was to help promote this idea of better management and coordination, not only bringing all the international actors together, but helping them to coordinate with the national governments who, after all, are the ones responsible for recovery in their own societies. And I think we’ve made some progress in that regard.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. McCormack, how would you contrast the progress that was made in a place like Indonesia, both Indonesia and Sri Lanka, for instance, had political turmoil before this, how would you contrast the progress that was made in Indonesia to the progress that was made in Sri Lanka?

CHARLES McCORMACK: Well, of course one of the great blessings in Indonesia is that a 25-year conflict has come to a significant resolution. Save the Children have been working in Aceh for over 30 years. And we had to suffer through a long with the people the pangs of a decades-long civil war.

And with the opportunity to build a new future together, the government of Indonesia and the different factions in Aceh have really — have really rallied and have come to an agreement. And most people think it’s very likely to stick. Sadly that is not yet the case in Sri Lanka. And the differences between the government and the Tamils continue. And that makes response and relief in Sri Lanka more challenging than in Aceh.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Schwartz we just heard in Tom Hagler’s report about the disputes over land, folks who thought they owned the land they lived on for generations finding out they can’t return to it. How big of an obstacle has that presented?

ERIC SCHWARTZ: It a very large obstacle in many of the countries. It’s a big challenge in Indonesia where a very, very small percentage of the population had title to land in Aceh prior to the tsunami. It’s a huge problem in Thailand. And I think it also makes clear that in a disaster of this proportion, who suffers the most. It’s the most vulnerable; it’s the poor. It’s the migrant populations, it’s the sea gypsies as your report indicated.

That’s why national governments and international agencies have to see themselves as advocates of vulnerable populations, as mentioned before. President Clinton, the special envoy regards that as a principal obligation of the international community, focusing on the needs of the most vulnerable because they are the ones who got left out in the recovery effort.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. McCormack, I read today that only one-fifth of the 1.8 million people who are left homeless by the tsunami in India and in Indonesia and Sri Lanka are in permanent housing yet. Is that the downside, perhaps, of the reconstruction effort?

CHARLES McCORMACK: Well, we all wish that housing could have been rebuilt overnight and people would be back at home. But we have heard about land being underwater. We’ve heard about the lack of titles. We’ve heard about building substandard housing by moving too quickly.

It took the government of Indonesia six months to discover and ascertain who owned what land. They did go out and talk to people. And we have done the same.

Several people have mentioned how important it is to involve families and parents in their own rebuilding, and at Save the Children, we’ve certainly done that. That has made it a little bit slower.

But when I was there in November, houses were building up literally like mushrooms, hundreds, perhaps thousands every day. So I think we are now into the stage where the preparatory work has been done and we ought to see enormous rebuilding over the coming months.

GWEN IFILL: I want to ask you and ask Mr. Schwartz as well. You are sitting in New Orleans tonight; a year later do you look at what has been done in the tsunami region and do you believe that the world is better prepared for a disaster of that magnitude?

CHARLES McCORMACK: Well, it’s something we’re working on, the U.N. is working on, the U.S. government is working on. Preparedness is more than half the battle. And we have, I think, all learned through the tsunami, through Katrina, through the earthquake in Pakistan that you can’t start organizing the hour after the crisis; you have to be organizing years ahead of time, and that is happening.

GWEN IFILL: Is that happening, Mr. Schwartz?

ERIC SCHWARTZ: Well, more people now are suffering than 20 years ago as a result of these natural disasters, and that is largely because of increases in population, movements to coastal areas, poverty and environmental degradation, so if one critical thing can be learned from this incident, it is that disaster mitigation and preparedness has got to be a much higher priority on the agenda of national governments.

GWEN IFILL: Is it on the agenda of international governments in the case of the tsunami?

ERIC SCHWARTZ: Yes, in fact, in January of this year there is an important meeting in Japan which set out a framework called the Kyoto Framework for Disaster Reduction which instructs governments to take a specified series of actions to better protect their people from natural disasters.

Now the key is implementation. We’re not there yet but I’m hopeful we can make significant progress.

GWEN IFILL: As are we all, Eric Schwartz, Charles McCormack, thank you both very much.