(03.12.) Immediately after the tsunami, Gunter Schramm and Birgit Zeitler travelled to the disaster area in South East Asia as members of the Welthungerhilfe emergency response team. They were confronted with the effects of the biggest disaster they had ever experienced. In this interview they explain what they learned from the event.
The tsunami was known as the ‘worst disaster the world had ever seen’. Did you also feel this?
Birgit Zeitler: It was a disaster of gigantic proportions. Hundreds of thousands of people dead, huge destruction of the landscape and many endlessly distraught people. Particularly difficult for us aid workers was that the tsunami was the first disaster to be broadcast via YouTube. Right from the beginning, the world was present.
When the aid started up, mistakes were made…
Gunter Schramm: The different aid organisations almost fell over themselves. It became a contest: Who could build the best houses the fastest, who organised the best fishing boats… The biggest mistake was that there was so little coordination. Distributions were a competition. People went from one distribution to another, in order to pick out the best items.
Has development aid learned from these mistakes?
Birgit Zeitler: Definitely. Emergency aid, that is, immediate aid after a disaster, has been brought to a professional level. This is also thanks to the United Nations: They have introduced the Cluster Approach, through which the work of development organisations is coordinated according to sector. At regular intervals – even when there is no present disaster – representatives of all development organisations come together at Cluster meetings. Here, through United Nations coordination, it is agreed who will help where, in the case of a disaster. For example, some will look after food distribution, others will build houses. Thanks to this Cluster creation, each organisation can bring its own strengths to a disaster, there is rarely competition anymore.
Further disasters followed the tsunami. Was the Welthungerhilfe team better positioned then?
Birgit Zeitler: I was in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. There were many dead there too and immense destruction. Due to the scale of the disaster, the aid workers also needed a certain amount of time before they had oriented themselves and the aid began. But it didn’t get stuck this time. We had everything under control much more quickly. The UN Cluster meetings certainly contributed to this.
Gunter Schramm: In 2013, after typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, I arrived as a member of a large team. There were eight of us – instead of just the two there had been after the tsunami. And at headquarters in Bonn there was a whole pool of contact people available. In the meantime, there are always – even on public holidays – people waiting on call. In the case of an emergency, they drop everything and help.
The unabridged interview can be read in Welternährung 4/2014 (in German only).
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