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Building Back Better After a String of Natural Disasters

October 1, 2009 -- It has been a disastrous week for many people who live in East Asia and the Pacific islands. One after another, major natural disasters hit several countries killing well over 1,000 people and laying waste to homes, hospitals, schools, hotels, roads and bridges.

First, flooding and high winds caused by tropical storm Ketsana left a trail of death and destruction in the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. Then, after an 8.3-richter scale earthquake off the coast of the Pacific Island nation of Samoa, a tsunami slammed into American Samoa, Samoa and Tonga, claiming over 100 lives and sweeping away homes and businesses. Then, over two consecutive days, two major earthquakes rocked the Indonesian island of Sumatra, killing another 1,000 people and trapping thousands more in destroyed buildings.

In the aftermath of such devastation, the World Bank works with Governments and international development partners to help assess the extent of damage, cost it out and then work on a long-term reconstruction plan that is about “building back better”. After the initial humanitarian relief operations are undertaken, the longer-term work of reconstruction and restoring people’s livelihoods often continues for months or years after a disaster.

Disaster risk management experts now recognize the importance of getting involved in the “building back” process as soon as a disaster occurs.

“We’ve found that reconstruction starts on day one,” said Abhas Jha, Disaster Risk Management coordinator for the World Bank’s East Asia and Pacific region. “The biggest risk is that bad decisions can get locked in early on.”

If people are living in an unsafe area and their houses are destroyed, for example, it is important to make sure they rebuild their homes in less vulnerable places. No one can control natural hazards like storms and earthquakes, but a well-planned reconstruction can “prevent people from living in the flood plain or building houses that are unsafe,” Jha says. “We are not just responding to disaster – we are also working with communities and governments to ensure that lives and livelihoods are better protected in case of another disaster.”

Learning from past experience

From all the experiences in disaster management that the World Bank has worked on --from earthquakes in Latin America, Turkey, Pakistan and China to floods in Yemen, Bangladesh, and Namibia--, the Bank has found that a key to long-term success of disaster recovery is involving affected people in decisions about how their homes and livelihoods are rebuilt.

In Aceh, communities drove their own house redesign and rebuilding efforts and took part in the re-mapping of their communities. As a result, much of community life has been restored and people feel that their new, quake-proof houses are safer and local facilities meet their needs. Lessons from Aceh were translated into an even better and less expensive community-led response to the 2006 earthquake which killed 7,000 people in Yogyakarta.

So now, as World Bank teams across East Asia and the Pacific gear up for this latest series of disasters, the lessons from Aceh, Yogyakarta and last year’s devastating Wenchuan earthquake in China are being factored into planning and discussions. And with funds just released for sustainable recovery and reconstruction planning in Samoa, Tonga, Indonesia and the Philippines from the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR)-- a partnership of 24 countries and international organizations managed by the World Bank-- the process is well underway.


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