Like many others in Britain I was overwhelmed and horrified by the appalling scenes of destruction and human tragedy we saw on our television screens after the Boxing Day tsunami. This almost incomprehensible disaster prompted the most extraordinary outpouring of generosity by the British people who have given more than £300 million.
It was to see how this money is being spent that, as President of the British Red Cross, I visited the tsunami-hit North East coast of Sri Lanka earlier this week on my way to Australia.
Flying over the outskirts of Batticaloa, a town of about 75,000 people, we could see the sand and silt still clogging the fields, and the trail of destruction the tsunami wrought amongst the homes and small shops. I was struck, once again, by the impossibility of finding the words to describe the full horror of such a tragedy or the suffering of those affected.
The northern part of Sri Lanka has suffered a 20-year civil conflict and, as a consequence, it has not always received the same level of worldwide attention as other parts of the region. It was for this reason that I felt it important to highlight the challenges people there are still facing as they struggle to rebuild their lives.
I was greatly touched by the warm welcome I received from people who have faced such adversity. In the small hamlet of Navalady I spoke to people who had lost everything – fishermen with no boats, a dressmaker with no materials and no equipment. They told me of the moment the tsunami hit and shattered their existence, of the friends and relatives they had lost, of the houses and temples completely destroyed and of their concern for the future.
I met local young Sri Lankan Red Cross volunteers still clearing away the vast amounts of rubble and debris and heard of the untiring work they did after the waves struck. I was hugely impressed to hear how the relief supplies flown in from Britain, and elsewhere, arrived within days – hygiene and medical equipment, cooking pots, tents and plastic sheeting - which helped people survive in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
From Boxing Day onwards, the British Red Cross emergency response operation was providing immediate humanitarian assistance, chartering eighteen cargo flights carrying essential relief items and co-ordinating the distribution of non-food items to people in Sri Lanka and other affected countries who were left with nothing. Indeed, I need hardly say that I was particularly glad my own sons were able to help British Red Cross volunteers in Bristol with the packing of hygiene kits containing toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, soap and large bars of clothes washing soap, destined for the Maldives.
The British Red Cross has so far spent £3 million in Sri Lanka from money donated by the British people, to provide emergency relief items such as blankets, tarpaulins, and kitchen sets. In addition, within days of the disaster a team of specialist professionals and equipment was deployed to receive incoming relief flights to Colombo and manage the complex logistics of the Red Cross operation on the ground.
The international Red Cross movement as a whole has sent 130 relief flights just to Sri Lanka, spending an estimated £60 million so far on relief items and emergency response specialists, including medical and water and sanitation teams. Many Non-Government Organizations have performed similar outstanding work. The relief effort has been enormous and is having a significant effect, as local people and government officials testified.
But this is only the start. In the tented camps that I visited, provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, I was inspired by the resilience of the people I met, but deeply moved by the trauma they have suffered. They told me they desperately want to start building new homes, for the men to go back to sea to catch the fish and the women to resume their livelihoods upon which the economy of this isolated rural community depends.
But it seems to me to be very important that none of us should underestimate the challenges that lie ahead. As the reporters and television cameras move on we must not forget the communities that are only just beginning to recover and rebuild their lives and livelihoods. I was told that, in this part of Sri Lanka at least, there are very few boatyards, so replacing the thousands of fishing boats and materials lost will take months, if not years. And I learned of concerns within the community that the Sri Lankan Government, anxious to avoid future tsunami damage, has imposed a 100 to 200 metre ‘buffer zone' along the coast, in which no rebuilding will be permitted. There will be difficult decisions ahead because, for generations, people have lived beside the sea on which they depend for their livelihoods…
My overriding impression was that it would seem vital now for the Sri Lankan Government, the Red Cross, the main NGOs and, where necessary, the private sector, to work closely together in co-operation with the communities concerned. I know the Red Cross believes an agreed plan should be prepared for the next five years to ten years to rebuild affected areas and devastated livelihoods, and to implement the rehabilitation work that is so badly needed. The plan should be driven by the needs of local people, but also be effective on a national level. I have heard from several sources recently, both in Southern India and Sri Lanka, that what coastal people want is the chance to return to the see to earn a living – so restoring people's livelihoods must surely be the first priority. For instance, in order to provide a team of three fisherman with a basic boat would cost only £500 and to provide his wife or daughter with a sewing machine would cost £125.
I was greatly encouraged to hear of the longer-term plans being implemented using some of the money so generously donated by the British public. Over the next three years the British Red Cross is planning to spend up to £10 million on rehabilitation work in Sri Lanka. One example of how the organization is spending your donation is a programme in the coastal region of Matara, in the South of the island, aimed at restoring the livelihoods of the local fishing communities devastated by the tsunami. This includes a ‘Cash for Work' programme, starting immediately, which is a short-term employment scheme targeting those who have lost their income. Acting as a social support mechanism, the scheme will employ local people to carry out physical work such as repairing boats and houses and clearing debris, paying a competitive daily wage to help people survive in the short-term and rebuild their communities.
This will be followed by cash grants which will be introduced to help fishermen, agricultural workers and craftsmen and women purchase the tools they need to return to work. Particular attention will be focused on providing assistance to the most vulnerable sectors of these communities - women, the elderly and the unskilled. And there are five-year programmes which will enable people to learn new skills to help contribute to the economic future of the region. Working alongside the Sri Lankan Government and other agencies, the British Red Cross also aims to improve healthcare, water supply, sanitation and education to give those directly affected by the tsunami a greater standard of living than before.
Building community resilience is a key priority in Sri Lanka and other affected countries, so the British Red Cross will also be implementing “disaster-preparedness programmes” to help people plan for, and respond to, any future disasters.
The challenge now will be to make sure that, in what are sometimes complicated circumstances, the money is spent responsibly and the work is done as quickly and as effectively as possible. I am sure that all the heartfelt compassion and kindness shown in the tsunami's immediate aftermath will endure, and that those who have suffered and lost so much as a result of this tragedy will not be forgotten as they struggle against such difficult odds to rebuild their shattered lives.