for National Geographic News
A year since the December 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami, aid groups are shifting their focus from immediate relief efforts to helping locals build self-sustaining communities that are better prepared for future disasters.
The effort is a delicate balancing act between helping people meet their day-to-day needs and restoring and protecting the ecosystems required to sustain communities for decades to come.
"Considering the massive enormity of what has happened it really is amazing to see what people have done," said Emile Parry, deputy director of Oxfam America's humanitarian response team in Boston, Massachusetts.
Last year's giant waves washed away entire villages, destroyed agricultural fields, and shattered lives during what some experts say could go down as the deadliest tsunami in history.
Official tallies put the number of dead at more than 215,000 with nearly 50,000 more unaccounted for. Some 1.7 million people were left homeless and upwards of 6 million were in want of food, water, and medical supplies.
The images of destruction beamed to television sets around the world compelled people to send billions of dollars in foreign aid and donate countless hours of volunteer time to bring relief to the affected regions.
A major stumbling block on the road to recovery is permanent housing. Four-fifths of the people made homeless in the wake of the disaster still lack a permanent home, according to Oxfam International.
The effort to rebuild has been hampered by the sluggish response of governments to allocate land for development. Confusion also reigns over the size of coastal buffer zones where building is not permitted, the relief agency noted in a recent report.
"I haven't heard anyone say they are against sustainable recovery, but it depends on what [local governments] do," said Anita van Breda, who leads the green reconstruction program for the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C.
In addition the movement of large populations from vulnerable coastal regions to inland territory has also raised problems of land ownership.
"More likely than not there are other people living [in inland regions]," Parry said. "That's something that needs to be navigated carefully."
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