People-centered Tsunami relief and rehabilitation


On January 19 – 20, 2005, a small regional meeting was held in Phuket, Thailand, to discuss the situation, the progress and the problems of reviving and rehabilitating communities which have been devastated by the tsunami in five Asian countries. The meeting brought together teams of community leaders, NGOs and professionals from India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand, all of whom are directly involved in tsunami relief and rehabilitation work in their respective countries. The Meeting organized with kind and efficient support from MISEREOR.

There was a clear agreement in the meeting that if the tsunami rehabilitation process is to be effective, the affected people must be involved in planning the rehabilitation of their own communities and livelihoods. The reconstruction of the settlements that were damaged or swept away by the tsunami presents an important opportunity to organize and strengthen these communities, many of which were poor, marginalized and vulnerable long before the waves struck. If opportunities and appropriate resources can be provided in the rehabilitation process to households and their communities, it will enable them to be active participants in planning and reconstructing their own housing and infrastructure, regenerating their living environments and livelihoods. Through enabling affected communities to work in close collaboration with local authorities and support organizations, the rehabilitation process canl really help to revive e the lives of those most affected by the disaster and to restore their shattered communities, their most vital support in this time of post disaster trauma.

The meeting also provided an opportunity for participating groups in the affected countries to share their experiences, describe the work they have been doing around issues of emergency reliefand temporary accommodation for tsunami victims. In particular the groups was able to hear from the team from Gujarat, Abhiyan, which had developed very valuable experiences in community based relief and rehabilitation after the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat. The latter’s experience drove home the point that community based approaches achieved faster and better quality results than pre-fabricated housing or commercially constructed housing that had been imposed in earlier government managed disaster relief programmes.

The participants were also able to reflect on the shortcomings of current relief efforts and reconstruction plans of governments and to begin laying out some directions for a more strategic, more community-driven rehabilitation process , in which the people affected by the tsunami would play an active role. The discussions made clear that in order to address the serious problems listed below, there is a need for alternative models of relief and rehabilitation to be developed with affected people and other support community networks on the ground, within the chaos and trauma of the crisis. There is also a need for creative coordination that involves the affected communities and that is flexible enough to link up recipients to donors both national and international, governmental and from the NGO and voluntary sector. The meeting agreed that this coordination would be better handled by civil society so that the performance of all agencies and individuals as well as the physical and social outcomes in all locations could be properly monitored and fairly and efficiently managed.

The problems and recommendations listed below are directly drawn from the direct experiences of the participants and their efforts to analyse and to learn from them. (As the political, social,economic and environmental realities – as well as the severity and scale of the tsunami disaster – vary widely from country to country, so it is important to note that initiating a community based approach post-tsunami relief and rehabilitation will face different challenges in each context.) To be implemented the recommendations will have to be adapted, according to local realties. The recommendations are intended to help develop effective and equitable general strategies to rebuild the lives and settlements of these shattered communities and promote a more people-centered disaster prevention,preparedness, mitigation and rehabilitation in the long term.

Problems emerging in tsunami-affected areas of Asia:

· In many cases, the enormous outpouring of relief assistance is not reaching the people on the ground properly, is not meeting their real needs, or is not helping their battered communities to get back on their feet again.

· Tsunami survivors are not being involved in the relief and rehabilitation processes.

· Where the tsunami-affected areas are under military control (as in Indonesia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka) the immediate and long term needs of affected people are not being effectively met because of larger political agendas.

· In more economically advanced countries like Thailand, where powerful business interests have enormous influence on political agendas and there is no mechanism through which the poor can have a say, the process of rehabilitation is being made more difficult.

· In much of the post-disaster planning that is already underway and in the new environmental regulations that are being invoked, the traditional rights and current needs of indigenous people and fishing communities are not being seen as a primary consideration.

· For environmental, military or commercial reasons, many coastal fishing communities affected by the tsunami are now in danger of being evicted from the land they have occupied for decades – or centuries – and of losing their traditional livelihoods).

· The tsunami disaster has exposed many pre-existing social and political problems such as the extremely poor and vulnerable groups of minority communities and migrant workers.

Recommendations :

1. Link support groups to create a more unified support and relief operation with a common direction:

When a major crisis like the tsunami happens, NGOs, support groups and relief agencies with much expertise to offer often end up plunging into the crisis in an erratic and scattered way, without coordination and without links between their efforts. It is therefore important to link support groups, NGOs, aid agencies, community networks and relief agencies together as soon as possible, so that all these groups can combine their diverse expertise, develop a common objective and work together to make a more effective, well-coordinated relief and rehabilitation process, in which each group does what it does best. Some of this linking and coordinating task is currently being done by the Urban Poor Consortium, an NGO working in Aceh, by the Abhiyan an NGO working in Tamil Nadu, and by the Community Organizations Development Institute (CODI) in southern Thailand. However, more needs to be done to set up a large scale coordination mechanism comprising coalitions of civil society partners such as NGOs and community federations operating in the affected areas which can continually monitor what is happening in the affected areas by making actual visits to every site, collecting specific detailed information from the people affected as to who needs what and where. Adequate transportation and manpower is needed to do this, and large areas such as Indonesia or Sri Lanka may need a number of such coordination centers. From the Indian experience in Gujarat in 2001 it was felt that a coalition of NGOs working in close partnership with affected communities and their federations as well as with government and other donors, would be best suited to this purpose.

2. Information gathering is an important initial intervention and an important tool for informing all subsequent activities. Information gathering has to be done quickly so the affected people, support groups and government agencies can develop a common understanding about the scale of the problem and the needs of the affected communities.

Before the needs of the affected communities can be addressed, it is essential that a coordinated and efficient information gathering process be launched. The affected communities, civic groups and relief agencies should begin gathering information as soon as possible, and update it regularly. Different kinds of information are needed at different stages of the relief process. At the beginning, rough information about numbers of affected communities, families, boats, deaths and people’s immediate needs is required very quickly to plan for emergency assistance and for temporary accommodation. Then, once people are in the camps, more detailed information about the affected people’s families’ children, former housing, land tenure status, legal documents and livelihoods will be required, to plan for the rehabilitation process. If this information gathering can be an active process, which involves the participation of the affected communities themselves, then it also becomes a powerful tool to begin organizing people.

The information helps the affected people and support groups to understand the scale of the calamity in concrete ways both in quality and quantity, and helps them to figure out what to do. In these ways, information gathering becomes a tool both to organize people, and to design effective interventions to address people’s needs. The more that affected people are involved the better.

3. It is essential to set up relief camps with temporary housing immediately, to bring the survivors from each affected community back together and they can get shelter and access to emergency relief. At the same time, these camps can function as places where the longer-term rehabilitation of their lives and livelihoods can be discussed, planned and supported in a more organized way.

Where the tsunami has scattered people and devastated their dwellings, the village or community they once occupied loses its meaning as an organizational unit. Temporary accommodation (in tents or temporary houses) in camps, as near as possible to the former settlements, is therefore essential to start bringing back together the affected victims. This is the function of temporary housing. Initially, these camps provide traumatized people with a safe place to stay, where there is food, medical care, clothes, access to government assistance – and, most importantly – neighbours and friends to talk to. Once people’s immediate needs are met, and they feel more secure in the camps, the temporary housing becomes the place where organizing can begin,. Little by little, the revival of these communities can begin on a temporary basis, at these camps.

4. Once they are back together in temporary camps, the affected communities can start a process of interaction and organization in which they work together to set a system in which they can represent each other, as members of an organization. The temporary camps can help facilitate this.

It is important that the affected people can start presenting their needs collectively- as a group – as soon as possible. There is a great need for affected community’s own voice to negotiate for and propose what they really need and want in the process of rehabilitation and rebuilding their communities and livelihoods. People have to take control of their lives again, and managing their lives and activities in the camps together is a good place to start. The organization and activities can start right away, and the systems people set to manage their lives in the temporary camps can later be put to use in the process of planning and reconstructing their permanent housing. Similarly, other relief activities should also be implemented with a view to building community systems of collective work and collective organization as much as possible.

5. It is important that people-driven pilot rehabilitation projects be started urgently, to get the ball rolling and to lead the rehabilitation process by demonstrating concrete examples on how effectively community-based reconstruction can work.

It is very important to show good, concrete examples of how to reconstruct these ravaged communities through the active involvement of affected communities, with support from local organizations and relevant government agencies, as soon as possible. One of the best ways to do this is to undertake pilot community reconstruction projects in which the people and the local authorities work together to develop permanent housing (on the same site, or as close as possible to the former community) with good collaboration. This is an effective way to lead the rehabilitation process in the right direction to energize all the other communities that are still in the planning process. But the rehabilitation of these pilot communities should involve much more than the physical environment and housing, and should include a more comprehensive or holistic rehabilitation of people’s lives, social support structures, livelihood and income sources. A rehabilitation program which provides only for physical needs will fall far short of rebuilding the lives that were shattered by this crisis. It is therefore important that this more comprehensive rehabilitation include – and integrate – other important aspects of people’s survival, as the affected communities see fit. Some examples are:

· support for income generation, so people can begin earning again and not have to rely totally on handouts. This might involve developing a community fund to support the community in the longer term.

· support for ecological revitalization, so people can become key actors in the revival and protection of the seaside ecosystems.

· support for rebuilding of social networks and community welfare systems for children, the elderly, and those injured, widowed or badly affected by the tsunami.

· support for the preservation or revival of the traditional cultures

6. Dealing with post-crisis trauma: One of the best therapies is helping affected people to get busy and to focus on their future through activities which have to do with managing their immediate needs and rebuilding their lives.

Large numbers of people experience serious trauma and shock from the violent and seemingly arbitrary catastrophe of the tsunami. Many have lost family members, witnessed horrific scenes and watched the entire fabric of their lives swept away. Some are unable to cope afterwards. There have been efforts made in different ways to console and to help people rebuild their spiritual and mental strength, through religious ceremonies or clinical trauma therapy. However, one of the important ideas that came out of the meeting was that the best way to deal with this trauma is to help people get busy. The best therapy to get people’s minds off the tragic events they’ve witnessed is to find a way for communities to look forward, to focus their energies on the actual situation they are now in, and to get them immediately and actively involved in vital activities such as temporary housing construction, camp management, cooking, getting children to school, surveying, and planning their future lives and communities. There are also many psychological and moral benefits that come from working together as a group. Collective relief activities of all sorts can become a kind of group therapy. The horizontal support systems that already exist in these communities have also been badly hit by the crisis, but they too need to be revived. It’ is clear that if people are left alone and isolated, they feel worse, whereas these horizontal links – from neighbors and fellow community members – can really help people cope.

7. The planning of community rehabilitation should be part of the larger area plan and part of the special post-tsunami environmental planning effort. It must be a participatory process with sensitive planners working with the direct involvement of the community and local organizations.

It is important that these three parts of the post-tsunami planning process go together. A number of new planning regulations and coastal green-belt and environmental protection zones are being discussed and imposed in several of the affected countries. All this is welcome, but it is crucial that these emerging planning and environmental policies and the planning of people’s way of life in these traditional coastal communities are creatively integrated and harmonized so they do not clash with one another. It is very much possible for traditional coastal fishing communities to be key actors in the important process of protecting the coastal environments that they have lived in for centuries. So the rehabilitation and reconstruction processes should boost the active participation of communities in the planning, protection and revival of these coastal environments.

The process of linking the redevelopment of these affected coastal communities with the larger planning agendas mentioned above calls for a great deal of sensitive professional assistance and mediation in the planning process, both in terms of planning the houses, the physical communities and the larger surroundings. There is an immediate need for inputs from planners and architects to help plan these devastated areas in such a way that they become better places to live and work – for all the local groups who share them. This calls for planners and architects who can understand the needs of these coastal fishing communities and find ways of helping people translate those needs into creative concrete plans.

8. It is important to link the affected communities together, to share ideas, learn from each other’s experiences, to support each other, to address problems they have in common, and to negotiate collectively with government agencies for what they need.

As long as they remain in isolation, these poor fishing communities will remain vulnerable to the powerful economic and administrative forces that keep threatening their settlements and livelihoods. Therefore, it is important to create opportunities for communities to link together horizontally, through variety of common activities and through the process of rehabilitation. Since the rehabilitation process will have to be implemented in all the affected communities simultaneously, there are innumerable opportunities for these communities to make links, share ideas, learn from each others experience, tackle common issues and work together.

9. Collaboration with government : The work that people are doing around issues of their own community revival and reconstruction should not be done in isolation, but every attempt should be made to link this work with what the government is trying to do. It is important to bridge these two streams of post tsunami rehabilitation efforts.

All the groups in the meeting agreed that strategically, it is very important for affected communities, support organizations and NGOs to keep established links – or to make new links – with the government, to take part in whatever forums or committees the government sets up, and to keep trying to tactfully relate what people are doing on the ground with government policies and plans. Because the tsunami crisis is so big, governments may be unable to deal effectively with the scale of need. And in their efforts to do so, governments may also set policies and launch programs which cannot reach all the affected communities or which conflict with their needs. In this regard, it is up to the people’s groups and their supporters to create opportunities and space for the government to understand what people are doing, and to find proactive ways to link people’s initiatives with government processes. What is most important, however, is to create opportunities which bring the government to collaborate with people’s ways of doing things, instead of the other way around.

10. Bring the community-government dialogue to the ground as much as possible, to create a platform for negotiation about what people actually need.

There are many different ways of bridging this gap between government policies and what people want to do. But one of the most powerful ways of creating a platform for meaningful dialogue on important rehabilitation issues (such as land, livelihood and access to rehabilitation funding) is by organizing forums, ground-breaking ceremonies and public events on the ground, in the affected communities, and inviting various government officials to participate and dialogue with people in those events. This is a powerful way of create conditions for related government agencies and departments to better understand the conditions and needs of people on the ground, rather than in an air-conditioned government office far away. And this can be a powerful way of getting a variety of actors involved and thinking in the same direction. Such events require preparation and a constructive strategy, however. People need to understand clearly what they want to get out of the opportunity these events offer, so it’s not just a complaining session or a meaningless ceremony. Preparing for these events can often galvanize a community’s planning process and sharpen people’s thinking about what they want to do, what the obstacles are and exactly what they want to achieve as a group. In these ways, such events become another vital tool for organizing people. There should also be many of these events, along the way.

11. The rehabilitation process should include all the affected people and communities, as much as possible, regardless of their status before the tsunami.

In many coastal areas affected by the tsunami, efforts are already being made to prevent families or entire communities without formal tenure status from returning to the land which they occupied before the tsunami. In all of the affected countries, these coastlines are dotted with poor fishing communities and indigenous settlements whose land tenure status is unclear in modern legal terms. Many of these communities are considered squatters on public land, even though they have occupied their land for decades – or centuries – and there will likely be more and more efforts to deny these people the right to rehabilitation and reconstruction support if they choose to stay in their original locations. This is especially a danger given the skyrocketing market values of much of the coastal property they inhabit and the intense political pressure being exerted by powerful forces in the tourism and commercial sectors to divest the communities of their waterfront locations. It is therefore imperative that the rehabilitation process cover ALL the affected communities so that rehabilitation process after Tsunami will be a way to help correct past injustices or administrative inefficiencies and to provide equity and a new tenure and civic legitimacy to everyone. The same considerations should apply to all minorities and migrant worker groups.

12. The only way to address the huge scale reconstruction is by tapping the huge scale and active involvement of the affected people themselves, with support from local and civic groups.

Only if room can be made for people to be key actors in their own rehabilitation process can it be possible to respond to the scale of crisis needs that are clearly too big and too complicated for governments to handle. The tsunami crisis can boost the people’s sector as an active development partner. After the earthquake in Gujarat, for example, the totally overwhelmed state government made an unconventional decision to pass the reconstruction budget directly to the affected communities, and allowed people to be the main actor in reconstructing their own houses. This turned out to be the most effective and efficient way of handling the huge scale of need, by directly tapping the energy of the affected people themselves, and their powerful drive to rebuild their lives. But if the reconstruction assistance has to pass through the government bureaucracy, it tends to get stuck in bottlenecks, and because of complicated and time consuming disbursement procedures, large scale needs cannot be met. There is a need for many new, innovative strategies on how the large numbers of affected people who already have a clear understanding of their needs, can be effectively and efficiently supported to improve their conditions by being involved in the rehabilitation process, as much as possible. There are many ways to create opportunities for people to be active partners in the process, from surveying, to organizing relief assistance, to managing the camps, to constructing temporary and permanent housing, and to setting up new livelihood opportunities.

Recommendations for international institutions and donors :

1. International institutions and UN agencies involved in assisting governments in tsunami-affected countries should find constructive ways to intervene to promote a relief and rehabilitation process in which local people and their communities are involved as much as possible. Particular efforts need to be made to ensurethat fishing communities be allowed to stay in their original locations or at a nearby location acceptable to them, so they can maintain their livelihood.

The rehabilitation process should also address all aspects of the affected people’s lives, not only the physical aspects such as housing and infrastructure. It is important that rehabilitation and reconstruction process also addresses their social and economic needs, promotes the revival of their livelihoods and strengthens their social support structures.

2. Funding support: Relief and rehabilitation support to governments should be given carefully, making certain that it DOES reach the affected people and that it DOES NOT strengthen the power of repressive regimes.

Funding support that goes to military governments, for instance, will probably hurt the tsunami survivors more than help them, because this funding will only strengthen the power of the mechanisms which are already oppressing people in these affected areas. This is the case in Indonesia, Myanmar and, to a lesser extent, in Sri Lanka. It is also important that the aid that is being given have certain conditions attached such that:

· the affected people should be involved, and should be able to decide on what is provided.

· minorities or people without legal rights before the tsunami should be included in the rehabilitationand reconstruction effort and that everybody affected by the tsunami disaster should have the right to a place in a proper community.

· rehabilitation should not turn into a process of evicting fishing communities

· rehabilitation should go beyond reconstructing physical needs (housing, infrastructure) and should encompass more holistic needs like livelihoods and citizenship.

3. More funding support should go directly to the affected communities. Relief and rehabilitation support should not only go to governments or big international NGOs, but should be diversified so that it reaches local civil society groups and community organizations, as much as possible.

Too much of the post-tsunami funding support is going to governments and the big relief agencies. It is important to seek ways of diversifying the relief support so that it can also go directly to local actors and community groups, as much as possible. If the aid can go directly to civil society groups, local NGOs or local authorities in partnership with communities and civic groups, it will enable people to support and help each other to recover from this crisis. Horizontal relief and support of this kind can be a very powerful addition to the conventional relief efforts in a major crisis like this one. It is urgent that the way external aid is distributed tap this source of support. There has been a very big mobilization of horizontal assistance after the tsunami by community networks and community organizations in the same areas or countries.

List of participants in the ACHR Regional Tsunami meeting in Phuket, Jan 19 – 20, 2005

Ms. Wardah Hafidz, from the Urban Poor Consortium, UPC, a Jakarta-based NGO, secretariat for national network called "Uplink Indonesia", which is active throughout Indonesia)

e-mail: website :

Mr. Zulkifli Ibrahim (Community Leader from Aceh)


website (has an English language link):

Mr. Sandeep Virmani (Managing Director)

Ms. Mansi Anand (Coordinator)

Organization name :