2004 Tsunami: A look back at Handicap International’s response

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In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, Handicap International worked to help vulnerable Indonesians, Sri Lankans and Indians affected by the large-scale disaster. Ten years later, the organization continues its work there, and has considerably developed its disaster risk management experience.

On Dec. 26, 2004, an 8.9-magnitude earthquake shook the ocean floor in the gulf of Bengal, close to the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. The earthquake caused an enormous tidal wave, which not only devastated coastal regions across Asia, but also destroyed inland areas. The tsunami devastated Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Maldives, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, claiming 270,000 lives along the way, and leaving more than 1 million people homeless.

An immediate and massive response

Handicap International immediately launched what was, at the time, the largest emergency response in its history. The association set to work straight away helping the most vulnerable people in Sri Lanka, where Handicap International had been working prior to the disaster. Subsequently, teams launched into action in Indonesia, India, and a short while later, in the Maldives.

"We were looking for injured people, but all we found were corpses,” recalls Maxence, Logistics Coordinator for Handicap International in Sri Lanka in 2004, who was in the country at the time of the disaster. “There was no-one to be found. So we turned (our cars) around and went back to help move the bodies."

Specific actions to support the most vulnerable

From Dec. 2004 to April 2005, Handicap International launched a series of major emergency response operations.  In Indonesia and Sri Lanka, Handicap International physical therapists worked in 18 hospitals and health centers[1] until March. In Sri Lanka, the association provided more than 42,000 consultations in displaced persons camps, including 7,200 consultations for respiratory infections.

In these two countries, teams provided more than 7,600 physical therapy consultations and directly managed more than 3,600 patients. The association and its Indonesian partners also provided around 500 people with orthopedic fittings (orthoses or protheses).[2] In India, in June 2005, Handicap International started working alongside the local association Vidya Sagar, which implemented projects promoting community based rehabilitation, accessibility in rebuilding, inclusion in education, and the rights of people with disabilities.

Sustainability of the emergency response

Following the emergency phase,[3] Handicap International continued its work with the aim of ensuring its long-term sustainability: training for orthoprosthetic technicians, support for Disabled People’s Organizations, and taking people with disabilities into account in the reconstruction process[4] in Indonesia; orthopedic fitting, training and. rehabilitation, resources centers for people with disabilities and support for Disabled People’s Organizations in Sri Lanka; support for the Indian association Vidya Sagar in India.

In the Maldives, although this was the third worst-affected country, Handicap International was the only organization apart from the International Red Cross to intervene after the tsunami. In November 2005, the association launched three new projects: support for the government in establishing a national policy for people with disabilities, the accessibility of the shelters built after the tsunami for people with disabilities[5] and support for community based rehabilitation projects[6] for people with disabilities in Khulhudufushi.

The association continues its work in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka today, notably on disaster risk management projects, an area of the association's expertise that the tsunami disaster helped to develop considerably.



[1] Indonesia: Banda Aceh, Sigli and Meulaboh, and Sri Lanka: Batticaloa, Ampara and Hambantota.

[2] Subsequently, between January 2005 and December 2006, 2,116 mobility aids, prostheses and orthoses were provided over the course of 4,343 consultations.

[3] The emergency phase lasted 5 months in Indonesia and 12 months in Sri Lanka.

[4]Handicap International was identified by UN-Habitat as the reference organisation for accessibility issues.

[5] Partnership with the Red Cross

[6]Rehabilitation aims to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities and their families by meeting their essential needs and by ensuring their participation and inclusion in society.