Tsunami-hit communities ready for future: Bill Clinton

NEW YORK Mon Dec 14, 2009 10:02pm EST

Former President Bill Clinton poses for a portrait in New York December 7, 2009. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Former President Bill Clinton poses for a portrait in New York December 7, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Communities devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami have "built back better" and lessons were learned for future disaster recovery, said Bill Clinton, who served as U.N. special envoy for tsunami rebuilding.

The former U.S. president told Reuters that quickly rebuilding permanent homes was the biggest challenge after the December 26, 2004 tsunami that killed around 226,000 people, mainly in Indonesia, India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

He recalled visiting an Indonesian camp housing survivors well after the magnitude 9.15 undersea earthquake struck off the coast and triggered the huge tsunami that killed 166,000 people alone in the country's Aceh province.

"People were still living in tents and they were very hot and very uncomfortable, several months after we thought they would be in permanent housing," he said. "That's the thing that I felt worst about.

"So we learned that if that happens, you really have to begin immediately with a plan to accelerate (housing). Otherwise it will always be the last thing done," said Clinton, who was appointed special envoy by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to oversee reconstruction efforts from 2005 to 2007.

Clinton also said something "we should have done a better job of" was involving local people more in reconstruction.

The disaster drew a huge international response with some $13.5 billion pledged worldwide to fund recovery, but a report on recovery efforts presented to the United Nations in April found a need to deliver aid fast outweighed equity.

COORDINATION THE KEY

Victims of conflicts raging in Indonesia and Sri Lanka at the time were ignored and some tsunami victims found it difficult to get access to assistance because of their gender, age, ethnicity, class or religion, said the report commissioned by Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, India and the Maldives.

Some donors said money could not be used to help conflict victims and Clinton said it should have been made clear earlier on in the recovery effort that "these people were in effect next door neighbors" with those affected by the tsunami.

"It doesn't make any sense ... if we help some individuals and not others," he said.

In Indonesia's resource-rich Aceh, the tsunami catastrophe paved the way for a peace agreement between separatists and military after a decades-long conflict, but in Sri Lanka, a war that started in 1983 between the Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Eelam and military continued and only ended in May this year.

Aceh was so devastated by the tsunami, said Clinton, the only way for the people to recover was to work together, but in Sri Lanka's conflict areas the damage was not as profound and they "didn't have to do enough together so that they couldn't conceive of going back to another way of doing things."

Clinton, who was appointed U.N. special envoy for Haiti in May, said he believes the United Nations now works more efficiently on the ground after the experience of dealing with the tsunami and that coordination was the key.

"If you have a big disaster and a lot of people want to help, you have to be able to accept the help and it has to be effective," he said.

Safer buildings had been reconstructed, said Clinton, and countries were also now much more sensitive to the role of the natural environment in reducing damage from future disasters.

Hundreds of thousands of hectares of mangroves -- many of which had been cleared for shrimp and fish farms -- were being replanted in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand after experts said they could have provided a barrier to slow the tsunami.

"I don't think the mangroves we put up will ever be torn down again," he said.

"One of the enduring benefits of this is they not only built back better," said Clinton. "But that they learned about disaster prevention, disaster mitigation and disaster response and organized themselves in a way that they hadn't before."

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Bill Tarrant)