Justine Greening: Britain shows its greatness when disaster strikes

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TEN years ago, one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history struck without warning.

The Boxing Day tsunami, triggered by a massive earthquake in the Indian Ocean, hit coastal communities across south Asia and east Africa with deadly force.

Locals and tourists had little time to react as 100ft tidal waves erupted from the sea. In the devastation, more than 230,000 people lost their lives. Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand suffered the heaviest losses but the disaster affected Britain too.

On Friday, we remember at least 150 British citizens who lost their lives, including Jon Hoy who worked at the Department for International Development (Dfid), the department I now lead.

As the scale of the disaster became clear, the world responded and Britain played her part in one of the greatest ever global humanitarian responses. British charity workers were among the first on the ground, bringing immediate relief to people in the worst-hit areas. Staff at my department worked around the clock to find missing people and trace their families.

Ten years on and Britain continues to be at the forefront when disaster strikes or conflict erupts. Hundreds of British soldiers and sailors, NHS volunteers and humanitarian workers are spending this Christmas in Sierra Leone helping to tackle the Ebola virus.

I have visited Sierra Leone twice in the last two months and I cannot pay too much tribute to the volunteers of so many nationalities who are putting their lives on the line to fight this disease. One Sierra Leonean Red Cross burial worker I met in Freetown put the danger bluntly: “My first mistake in this job will be last mistake I ever make.”

Yorkshire as a county is very clearly at the forefront of Britain’s response to Ebola, and not just because I am Rotherham born and bred. Catterick Garrison has provided British Army medical units to work in treatment and training facilities in Sierra Leone, while Queen Elizabeth Barracks at Strensall has provided intensive training facilities for those deploying to the country.

Consider also the small numbers of doctors, nurses and ambulance staff from NHS trusts in Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford who have volunteered to tackle this global threat this Christmas. They, and many more like them, are simply extraordinary.

And I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that the whole world depends on these brave men and women like never before. It is not only because of Ebola that 2014 will be remembered as a year of unprecedented crisis. For the first time ever, the UN declared four simultaneous world crises at Level Three, the highest category, in Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Iraq.

With so much instability in the world, our humanitarian work needs to become even more effective and more efficient. That is why we are investing to improve not only the quality and speed of our emergency responses but in the work we can do to pre-empt disasters, given investing in prevention is usually better than paying only for cure.

The science of predicting natural disaster is getting better every day but in the past global investment in preparedness and resilience has been far too low. Dfid is helping high-risk countries to better prepare for, and predict, natural events so something like the Boxing Day tsunami can never again take us by surprise in the way it did.

We saw the effectiveness of this approach earlier this month when Typhoon Hagupit hit the Philippines just one year after the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan, which had killed over 6,000 people and affected more than 14 million others. Britain’s support in the intervening year, including improving weather forecasting and early warning systems, helped the Philippines to be far better prepared this time around so that hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated early, and food and other supplies rapidly sent to the worst-hit areas.

In the last decade since the tsunami, the UK government has also become more joined up in the way that we respond to emergencies. When Typhoon Haiyan struck, Britain deployed two Royal Navy warships carrying marines, engineers and medical staff to the Philippines to work hand in hand with Dfid humanitarian staff.

In the summer, RAF Hercules aircraft dropped lifesaving UK aid supplies over Mount Sinjar to help thousands of Iraqis besieged by ISIL terrorists. And in Sierra Leone, Royal Engineers have worked day and night with local contractors to build from scratch six new British Ebola treatment facilities in a matter of weeks.

The spirit and commitment of British military, humanitarian and health workers to saving lives and tackling problems beyond our borders rightly set us apart. We as a country – and Yorkshire as a county – can be proud of the humanitarian and development work we have done since that dreadful day 10 years ago to build a safer, more stable and prosperous world.

Justine Greening is the Rotherham-born International Development Secretary.