Emergency and humanitarian action

2004 tsunami: 10 years later

On 26 December 2004 a strong earthquake measuring 9.3 on the Richter scale hit Indonesia triggering the most destructive tsunami recorded in modern history which caused massive death and destruction across countries. Six of the 11 Member States of WHO South-East Asia Region were severely affected - Indonesia, India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Myanmar.

Nearly 200 000 people died, 800 health facilities were destroyed as coastal villages were completely wiped out. The total damage is estimated at US$11 billion.

Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh briefing specialist volunteers
Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia (who was Deputy Regional Director at the time) briefs specialist volunteers from private multinational companies in the Operations Room.

The disaster left formidable public health challenges which needed immediate response. Millions of people were affected, the injured needed medical aid, health infrastructure was totally destroyed in the most severely affected areas and health workers themselves were among those adversely affected. People were crowded into relief camps and the risk of communicable diseases outbreak was huge. There was urgent need for safe drinking water, medicines and traumatized survivors needed special attention.

In the grim scenario of death and destruction, the challenge was to get the health systems functioning. Support poured in from across the globe – governments, international and national agencies, public and private sector.

WHO response

Within hours WHO set up response operations at the South-East Asia Office in New Delhi. WHO SEARO was the nodal point for coordinating WHO’s global effort. The prime objective for WHO was protecting the health of the survivors and other vulnerable people affected by the disaster. Over 160 people were deployed and field offices were set up where required. Human resources and emergency medical supplies were mobilized. Technical guidelines were compiled, updated and disseminated for use by emergency teams in the field. WHO facilitated logistics, restored medical supplies chains and helped set up surveillance systems to monitor disease outbreaks.

Response of 2004 tsunami.

WHO played the key role in assisting health authorities coordinate the work of hundreds of health agencies and nongovernmental organizations involved in tsunami relief work.

For WHO this was a unique learning experience. Never in history had it responded to a natural disaster of such scale and geographic spread.

Learning from 2004 tsunami

The several lessons learnt during the post-tsunami emergency operations and recovery and development phases were compiled into WHO guidelines for preparedness to respond to disasters.

WHO South-East Asia Region developed a set of Benchmarks for Emergency Preparedness and Response which includes standards, indicators and guided questions to measure what is in place for legal frameworks, plans, finance, coordination mechanisms, community capacities, capacity development and early warning. Member countries are using the WHO benchmarks for capacity development and assessment for risk management in the health sector.

WHO established the South-East Asia Regional Health Emergency Fund (SEARHEF) for rapid and predictable funding of emergencies which has now supported 24 emergencies in the Region over the last six years.

Preparedness tested

On 11 April 2012, an earthquake of 8.7 on the Richter scale rocked Sumatra in Indonesia. Tremors were also felt in neighbouring countries. The tsunami warning system was activated. All coastal communities from Aceh, Nias Island, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Thailand were evacuated to higher areas. Community relay of the communication was seen in many coastal areas such as Chennai in India where loudspeakers from local government representatives informed everyone to move. Hospitals in Banda Aceh evacuated their patients in an orderly manner - a result of their preparedness plans and drills. The tourism sector in Sri Lanka was very organized in moving resort guests to higher grounds. The day demonstrated that the preparedness lessons of the 2004 tsunami were in place and working.

Emergency preparedness, an ongoing process

WHO has initiated an emergency risk management mechanism which is an ongoing process to continuously evaluate and assess capacities against all hazards.

Community awareness

Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and Maldives continue to improve systems they set-up with knowledge and tools developed through the lessons of the tsunami. Other countries in the WHO South-East Asia, not affected by tsunami, are doing so using the same knowledge.

The emergency response capacities have been strengthened, as demonstrated by Member States’ handling of disasters in the recent years, and continue to be built upon to save lives in disasters.