Ten years on from tsunami — are we safer now?

A massive underwater quake measuring 9.1 on the Richter scale rocks the seabed 300km west of Medan, Sumatra, at 7.58am Indonesia time (8.58am Singapore time), triggering a tsunami.

Most of us can clearly recall where we were on Dec 26, 2004, when a 9.1-magnitude earthquake off the northern coast of Sumatra triggered a deadly tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean, killing over 226,000 people and causing massive destruction along coastal areas of 14 countries.

The full horror of the disaster unfolded on TV screens around the world. As we mark 10 years since the biggest disaster in living memory, it is important to reflect on what the tsunami has taught us and whether communities are any safer from such disasters.

Perhaps the most important lesson reinforced by the tsunami is the importance of investing in disaster risk reduction (DRR) at both global and local levels.

In January 2005, the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) - a global blueprint for disaster-risk reduction efforts with a 10-year plan - was adopted by 168 governments.

Its goal was to substantially reduce disaster losses by 2015, by building the resilience of nations and communities to disasters. Shortly afterward in June 2006, the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System became active, consisting of 25 seismographic stations relaying information to 26 national tsunami information centers. This has resulted in timely evacuations of mass populations when alerts are sounded.

The tsunami highlighted how weak legislation led to blockages and major coordination challenges in the delivery of international assistance. The Hyogo Framework for Action calls for improved legislation to facilitate international disaster response, an area where the - International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has been working closely with governments through its Disaster Laws programme.

Twelve countries in the Asia Pacific have made, or are progressing toward, legislative or regulatory changes. These include Indonesia, where the National Disaster Management Agency has revised its regulations relating to the participation of the international community in national emergencies.

Another example is the Philippines, where, following Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, the government relaxed immigration requirements and established one-stop-shops to streamline the clearance process for incoming goods and equipment

But global and national initiatives need to go hand-in-hand with investment in locally driven approaches toward reducing risk. Working with communities to help them be better prepared to face future disasters was the thread that ran through the IFRC's recovery efforts after the tsunami.

Rebuilding physical infrastructure including 50,000 new homes was one step, but establishing community-based disaster-risk management programs was equally important.

Sea search-and-rescue teams were set up in Thailand, training was given to thousands of first-responders in Sri Lanka, HF Radio early-warning systems were established across Indonesia alongside mangrove-planting projects to reduce the impact of coastal flooding. The legacy of those initiatives lives on today.

Community participation and engagement in risk reduction is vital and the tsunami cast a spotlight on the need to improve accountability and two-way communication with crisis-affected communities.

Traditional and hi-tech approaches were used to enable people to raise questions or air concerns about the aid effort via community meetings, live radio and SMS.

Such approaches have since become integral aspects of major operations and have proved essential in health promotion and social mobilization campaigns.

Next year, the Third UN World Conference on Risk Reduction takes place in Japan where HFA 2 will take shape. This represents a unique opportunity to re-focus attention on the need for greater investment in community level disaster-risk reduction.

This means recognising that local people and organisations are first responders in emergencies and understanding that they must be the drivers of change in their communities as they have the best understanding of the risks they face. It also means investing in strengthening the risk-reduction capacities of local, city and regional authorities.

The writer is Under secretary-general, National Society and Knowledge Development under the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.