Long road to recovery

Tsunami victims in Sri Lanka pick up Swiss-supplied mattresses Keystone

Reconstruction in countries devastated by last month’s Asian tsunami is likely to take years, according to Switzerland’s top emergency-aid coordinator.

This content was published on January 7, 2005 - 09:18

Toni Frisch was speaking to swissinfo from Indonesia, where he has been inspecting the extent of tidal-wave damage in the northern province of Aceh.

Around 80 Swiss experts are currently providing humanitarian assistance for the hundreds of thousands of people left homeless after the December 26 undersea quake off the coast of Sumatra.

Switzerland is also sending three transport helicopters and up to 50 military personnel to Sumatra following a request by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

The tsunami wiped out towns and villages in the coastal areas of several countries – including Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia - and claimed the lives of up to 156,000 people.

Much of the SFr27 million ($22.9 million) pledged by the Swiss government to help victims of the disaster has already been allocated for aid projects.

Frisch, who heads up the Humanitarian Aid Unit at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, is responsible for planning and implementing Switzerland’s relief efforts in the region.

swissinfo: Switzerland has already come up with reconstruction plans such as building a new village in Thailand and schools in Sri Lanka. How has this come about so quickly?

Toni Frisch: We have a coordination office in Thailand and also in Sri Lanka. We’ve been working [in Sri Lanka] since the 1980s, and have been involved in construction and reconstruction programmes for hospitals, dispensaries and schools for many years. So it is clear that in the south, where many schools were affected, we should continue and develop the construction programme we already had running in the north.

The work of reconstruction has [already] begun, and that’s why a rapid decision was needed.

swissinfo: Are you also thinking of reconstruction projects in Indonesia, or is the focus likely to remain on humanitarian assistance?

T.F.: It’s perhaps a little early, but it’s absolutely clear that reconstruction must include bridges, roads and communication systems. Shelter is another must.

But first of all we have to continue providing people with relief goods such as medical supplies, tents, shelter materials, medicine - and above all water. These operations are going to continue over the next days, weeks and months.

swissinfo: The aid effort that’s going on in the region is a huge logistical challenge. Do you have the sense that countries are working together, or is it just too big a task?

T.F.: It is too big a task in that there is no country that could have been prepared to face such a catastrophe.

On the other hand, I’m impressed with the coordination and cooperation in Sri Lanka, and also here [in Indonesia]. Cooperation has been established between the United Nations, the Red Cross, NGOs and government agencies.

But it is clear: a catastrophe of such dimensions produces chaos. I’m not criticising anybody – it is simply a tremendous challenge.

swissinfo: One of the challenges perhaps is that you have so much money flowing in. Isn’t it easier to raise money than to ensure it’s spent wisely?

T.F.: That’s right, and we are working in close cooperation with the NGOs in Switzerland [to ensure it is properly spent].

But there are many needs – short-term, medium- and long-term. And these funds also have to cover reconstruction programmes, which will take at least two, three, perhaps even five years or more.

swissinfo: Are you satisfied with the Swiss government’s contribution – SFr27 million – when you consider how much more countries such as Australia, Germany and Japan have pledged?

T.F.: Switzerland’s contribution was only to cover the immediate needs in the region, and not reconstruction. And some other countries are only providing grants.

The Swiss government made a rapid decision allowing us to start work immediately and effectively. We can go back to them and ask for more if we need it. In a couple of months we should have an overview of total needs. So I’m very satisfied with the government’s decision.

swissinfo: Are you concerned that because of this disaster there may be an influx of refugees from Sri Lanka and Indonesia to Europe?

T.F.: Well, it’s clear that many families have lost everything and don’t feel that they have any future. So of course they will be looking in the direction of Europe. But I don’t expect an influx such as we had from Kosovo.

The aim of our reconstruction work is not to try to stop people from coming [to Europe]. These people have suffered so much, they deserve our support and that’s what we are giving them.

swissinfo: What’s your overriding impression of this disaster compared with others you’ve had to deal with?

T.F.: We have reacted to crises on many occasions, deploying people within hours. So rapid reaction is nothing new for us.

But it has never before been the case that ten countries were affected at the same time, and deploying teams on the same day to five different countries is something new - not just for us, but for everybody. This has never happened before in the history of humanitarian aid.

swissinfo: Is there any one moment from your trip that really sticks in your mind and sums up the situation?

T.F.: In Sri Lanka I was looking for a plastic bag to take something home in, and a man came and gave me a bag he had in his hand. He told me he had lost everything – his mother, father and sister - and he was totally alone.

We had never seen each other before and will never see each other again, but for ten minutes we talked together like friends. Moments like these are very special.

swissinfo-interview: Ramsey Zarifeh

Key facts

As part of its commitment to reconstruction, Switzerland has pledged to rebuild a fishing village in Thailand wiped out by the tsunami.
In Sri Lanka, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation’s priorities are the building of schools and the restoration of drinking water systems.
In Indonesia, aid agencies are still struggling to provide basic medical and food supplies to thousands of people left homeless.

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