Behind the scenes: UNDP & the Discovery Channel's documentary

09 Dec 2009

These calm waters and peaceful tourist attractions in Phuket, Thailand, belie the devastation that took place here on December 26, 2004, when an Indian Ocean tsunami swept one-fifth of the way around the Earth. It killed more than one-quarter of a million people and affected over 2.5 million in 14 countries in Asia and as far away as Africa.

In the worst hour of need, the world rallied around the survivors.

But how are those survivors now, five years later?

The United Nations Development Programme and a wide range of other UN agencies, the Agency for Reconstruction and Rehabilitation of Aceh and Nias (BRR), the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, UNIFEM and other partners decided collectively to make a documentary that would tell the story – not of the disaster – but of the recovery.

In cooperation with Discovery Channel, a documentary has been produced that will explore the mending and rebuilding of lives and communities in the hard-hit areas in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Maldives. The one-hour film will capture the challenges, innovations and breakthroughs over the past five years of recovery.

UNDP went behind the scenes with Discovery as they filmed one segment in Ban Nam Khem, Thailand. This fishing village lost nearly half of its population in the tsunami. Here, the documentary takes a look at land rights issues and a range of houses that were built some by the government, some through community negotiations, and some by private individuals.

UNDP met Maitree Jongkraijak, a community organizer. He and his neighbors in Ban Nam Khem declined the housing choices they were offered. Instead, they asked for material to build their own houses in their own style. Maitree has been invited to share his experiences in community development in Indonesia, the US and Canada. Closer to home, he also teaches school children how to be more aware of disaster warning signs and tsunami escape routes.

In a beach in the middle of a monsoon, UNDP found a community volunteer who was on a weather watch. The Thai Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation, with support from UNDP, trained local villagers in the coastal area to look for any natural signs of disaster. These villagers are called “Mr. Disaster Warning” or “Mr. Tuenpai” in Thai. In addition to looking out for tsunamis, they are trained to look for coastal hazards like strong waves, thunderstorms and beach erosion. There is now a dedicated group of volunteers in six coastal provinces of Thailand who can monitor and warn others of impending danger.

The documentary will explore evacuation exercises and warning systems across the Asia and Pacific region. It will search for examples of building back better. It will examine new livelihood opportunities, and shed light on a how massive amounts of aid were managed. It will uncover the new roles that women play in the recovery and reconstruction effort. Heroes will be identified. Prominent figures will be interviewed.

The ultimate aim of the documentary is for the world community to better understand what was effective and what was not so effective in the recovery and reconstruction, in order to be better prepared the next time around in this region -- the most disaster-prone in the world.

Watch “Anatomy of a Recovery” on Discovery Channel Asia starting from 26 December 2009.