The reports coming out of the Philippines are all too familiar. Shattered villages, corpses strewn across battered beaches, dazed survivors picking through the wreckage of their former lives. As I write, Typhoon Haiyan (described in some news reports as a “supertyphoon”) appears to be the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history and one of the worst ever in Asia – a region that has known no shortage of calamities.

Many of the survivors are talking about a “wall of water” – most of the damage was caused not by rain or winds, but by a massive storm surge that followed. Nine years ago, on December 26, 2004, I heard precisely the same description from survivors of the Asian tsunami that struck the part of the coast where I live, in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. On the morning of that disaster, I raced down to the beach. I found a highway gurgling with water, and the body of a boy spread across the sand. The wave had receded; the ocean was flat again. But all anyone could talk about was the wall that had slammed down on them.

The Asian tsunami remains one of the biggest natural disasters in mankind’s history, a calamity that claimed more than 200,000 lives in 14 countries. Haiyan, mercifully, does not appear to have reached the same level of destruction: One official guessed that perhaps 10,000 people may have died, most in the central islands of the Philippines. Nonetheless, the affected regions are likely to witness the same influx of relief workers and aid money that followed the tsunami (and that followed other recent disasters such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and, to a lesser extent, the tremendous flooding that same year in Pakistan).

Every disaster is particular. Different regions and nations face different challenges (and opportunities) in confronting nature’s fury. Still, there are enough broad similarities to make it worth asking: What lessons does the Asian tsunami have to offer those responding to Haiyan?

A few lessons from the tsunami are particularly worth heeding. First, all the aid money in the world and the best-intentioned aid workers will founder if local governments are not responsive or efficient. Development (and disaster management in particular) is to a large extent a problem of coordination. Governments play a central role in this coordination, and especially in ensuring that international money is channelled to those who most need it on the ground. Those regions that had the most effective response to the tsunami – Malaysia, for instance, and to an extent India – benefited tremendously from centralised and empowered decision-making authority, and from an emphasis on accountability and minimising what people in this region euphemistically call “leakage” of donor funds.

A more participatory approach can have other benefits. Benjamin Larroquette, a friend and United Nations official who has worked on a wide range of natural disasters around the world, including the tsunami, told me that “when money flows in, it naturally flows to the most powerful and makes them even more powerful”. Local interest groups are adept at co-opting often naive foreign aid workers. The best way to counter this trend and ensure what Larroquette calls “equity in recovery” is for aid workers to encourage the participation in relief work of traditionally disempowered groups.

Almost a decade after the tsunami, one of the most striking things about its aftermath is the way the aid has altered society along this coast, often for the better. One of the most transformative, yet simple, ideas implemented by aid groups was to put the titles of newly built houses in the names of women. This decision has changed gender relations in many fishing communities, empowering mothers and wives and daughters. A similar effort to include the voices of other marginalised groups (the untouchable caste, for instance, or tribal populations) has likewise helped take at least small steps towards addressing millenniums-old patterns of discrimination.

It is early yet in the Philippines and officials there will no doubt be focused on the immediate relief efforts: Getting food and medicine to the victims, preventing disease, restoring vital infrastructure. This makes eminent sense and talk today about using aid as an opportunity for long-term social transformation may strike some as crass, even exploitative.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the Asian tsunami, though, is that international aid is a powerful, even revolutionary force – arguably as much so as large natural disasters themselves. It is up to aid workers and government agencies to ensure that force is directed in a positive direction. That is perhaps the only way to salvage some meaning out of tragedies like Haiyan and to ensure that the thousands of lives they claim will not have been lost utterly in vain.

Courtesy Gulf News.