(Reproduced from www.telegraph.co.uk)
Like many others in Britain, I was overwhelmed and horrified by the appalling scenes of destruction and human tragedy 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.
As President of the British Red Cross, I visited the tsunami-hit north-east coast of Sri Lanka early last week on my way to Australia to see how this money is being spent. As we flew 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 wrought among 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.
Northern Sri Lanka has suffered a 20-year civil conflict and, as a consequence, it has not always received the same 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 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 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 Sri Lankan Red Cross volunteers still clearing away the vast amounts of rubble and debris and heard of their untiring work 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 18 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 has sent 130 relief flights just to Sri Lanka, spending £60 million so far on relief items and emergency response specialists, including medical and water and sanitation teams. Many non-government organisations 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 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 relies.
But it seems to me 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 just beginning to recover and rebuild their lives and livelihoods.
I was told that in this part of Sri Lanka there are 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 'buffer zone' of up to 200 metres 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 so depend.
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 in close co-operation with the communities concerned.
I know the Red Cross believes that an agreed plan should be prepared for the next five to 10 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, in southern India and Sri Lanka, that what coastal people want is the chance to return to the sea to earn a living – so restoring people's livelihoods must surely be the first priority. For instance, it costs only £500 to provide a team of three fishermen with a basic boat and to provide his wife or daughter with a sewing machine costs £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 plans to spend up to £10 million on rehabilitation work in Sri Lanka.
One example of how the organisation 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. This includes a ''Cash for Work'' programme, starting immediately, which is a short-term employment scheme targeting those who have lost their income.
The scheme, acting as a social support mechanism, will employ locals 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.
Cash grants will be introduced to help fishermen, agricultural workers and craftsmen and women purchase the tools they need to return to work. Particular attention will focus 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 teach people new skills to help contribute to the economic future of the region.
The British Red Cross, working alongside the Sri Lankan government and other agencies, also aims to improve healthcare, water supply, sanitation and education to give those affected by the tsunami a better standard of living than before.
A priority in Sri Lanka and other affected countries is building community resilience, so the British Red Cross will also implement "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 quickly and effectively.
I am sure that the heartfelt compassion and kindness shown in the tsunami's immediate aftermath will endure, and that those who have suffered and lost so much will not be forgotten as they struggle against such difficult odds to rebuild their shattered lives.
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