Partnering to Amplify Disaster Response
We Can Do More Together
by Silvana Faillace and the Development and Humanitarian Assistance team at Church World Service
When the ground shook on that September afternoon in 2018, it was only the beginning. After a few hours of small quakes, a 7.5-magnitude earthquake struck Central Sulawesi in the early evening. The quake triggered tsunamis and a phenomenon called liquefaction, when land literally turns to liquid.
“The mud flowed, destroyed our house and dragged it and other houses – or what was left of them – away,” says Henny Putong, a resident of Central Sulawesi. The ground itself moved entire villages, swallowed houses and destroyed infrastructure like roads and water lines.
These successive disasters killed more than 5,300 people. Within hours, hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes and scrambled to find any kind of shelter. Many of these families have been permanently displaced; the land where they once lived is now uninhabitable.
In situations like this, when so many people have so many needs all at once, how do we decide where to start? The answer becomes clearer when emergency responders work together, share resources, and streamline their efforts. That’s why CWS (Church World Service) helped found ACT Alliance a decade ago. It’s a coalition of more than 150 churches and faith-based organizations who work together in over 125 countries. In a crisis, ACT Alliance members channel their support towards member agencies who are well-positioned to respond. Not only does this lead to efficient and effective response-coordination, but it helps prevent situations where many organizations are stepping over each other to do the same thing.
Responding in Central Sulawesi
In Central Sulawesi, CWS is one of the agencies on the ground. We have worked in Indonesia since the 1950s, helping communities address issues of hunger, malnutrition, and access to safe water sanitation. We work to reduce disaster risks and prepare to respond when emergencies do hit. We also strive to protect vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers. When the news from Central Sulawesi came in, the CWS team immediately got to work.
Within a few days, a truck was heading into the disaster zone laden with tarpaulins, ropes, blankets, bottled water, fuel, and hygiene supplies. We assembled a team of current and former employees and immediately hired a fleet of trucks and drivers to deliver water to the encampments where thousands of displaced families were living – more on that here.
“CWS was the first organization to supply water as there is no water source nearby and otherwise people had to walk a long way to a river to get it. Thanks to CWS, we have a tank that CWS refills daily with fresh water from a tanker,” Henny Putong said in the early days of the disaster. Nine months later, we are still delivering water each day to those who are still displaced so they can cook, keep themselves clean, and quench their thirst.
In the months since the complex disaster hit, we’ve worked with communities to build dozens of public bathrooms so families living in temporary camps – and especially women – have a dignified and sanitary place to relieve themselves. We have mobilized volunteers to share essential health and hygiene information to help people protect their wellness in makeshift, cramped conditions. We have distributed thousands of jerry cans, hygiene supplies, mosquito nets, solar lamps, sleeping mats, tarps, tents, and blankets. We are focusing on helping families build transitional shelters; more than 200 are already done. And we’re working with camp and community leaders to learn about the most pressing needs and develop plans to meet them. All of these efforts are unfolding through partnerships and collaboration.
People and organizations from around the world have supported CWS’ response through the ACT Alliance and other partners. Participating Christian denominations include the United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and Church of the Brethren, among others. In Australia, our partner Act for Peace stepped in to help as part of the Church Agencies Network-Disaster Operations consortium. Government and civil society organizations from the United States, Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, Finland, Spain, Iceland, and the Netherlands have provided generous financial support. Together we’ve mobilized a response that has brought protection, hope, and comfort to tens of thousands of people.
In crisis situations all over the world, faith groups are often leaders in providing exactly that: protection, hope, and comfort to people who are facing extreme hardship. Every bit of each group’s work is powerful, and our impact is amplified when we work together. That’s why interfaith work has been a cornerstone of our humanitarian response programs.
For example, as the United States and the Caribbean have been hit by powerful storms in recent hurricane seasons, our team has convened a forum for responding denominations and faith-based organizations to collaborate. It’s been a platform for each organization to share about its work and ongoing needs, and it has led to some joint response work.
Recently the exodus of nearly 3.5 million Venezuelans has resulted in a humanitarian crisis. In 2018, CWS teamed up with Lutheran World Federation and several other faith-based organizations to start an ecumenical program in a Colombian border town to support Venezuelan migrants and their impoverished Colombian neighbors. We helped ensure Venezuelan families had food and hygiene supplies as they settled into their new community. We also helped participating families start or expand small businesses so they could earn a living and meet their basic needs on their own.
Additionally in Venezuela, CWS has launched a research project studying how local faith communities are welcoming and caring for Venezuelans along migration routes, at border crossings, and at their final destinations. Many groups are already providing temporary shelter, plus food, clothing, transportation, legal support, and access to health services. The CWS study will document types and places of support as a starting point for a more coordinated response. Ultimately, this initiative will improve the quality of support and services for Venezuelan migrants across the region.
Returning to Asia, the CWS team in Japan has made disaster resilience and recovery its mission since 2011, when the East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami struck. Much of CWS’ work in Asia and worldwide happens in faith-based or civil society coalitions which, in addition to humanitarian action when needed, also press world leaders and governments to fulfil their commitments to address the complexities of reducing disaster risk for their most vulnerable citizens.
From Indonesia to Venezuela, the United States to Japan, we’ve seen it time and time again: when disaster strikes, humanity comes together. We want to provide immediate, high-quality aid to people who need it. Sometimes that means clean water and a private bathroom. Other times it means tools to build a business and provide for your children. Sometimes it means a hot meal or a cozy blanket. No matter where disaster strikes, one thing remains constant in humanitarian work: we can do more together than we can alone. And when your neighbor needs you, you do as much as you can.
Header Photo: Unsplash