On the pulse of future disasters

  • ASEAN+
  • Sunday, 06 Feb 2005


WEEKS after the seas retreated, after the minutes of terror along hundreds of kilometres of coast, people on the rim of the Indian Ocean are emerging from their December morning’s nightmare to a long, hard future of trying to recreate an obliterated past. 

The Dec 26 earthquake-tsunami took a staggering toll of lives. But for those left behind, from Aceh to Galle to the shores of east Africa, it also destroyed a world: of houses, shops and schools, clinics, mosques and farms, roads and railways, boats and vehicles, bridges, power lines and irrigation channels, harbours and storehouses, trees, beaches, reefs and lagoons. 

It will take months and years to rebuild local fishing industries and restore other jobs, to wash the salt from farmlands, to re-grow coral reefs and mangroves, to replant uprooted families, to repair wounded minds. 

The world-destroying waves left economic, social, political, environmental legacies – and a geological one 8km deep in the sea, where seismologists say a twin great quake is now inevitable. 

But those who know disasters well hope the Indian Ocean tsunami will have one more lasting impact: waking up a distracted world. 

“We’ve got to get away from this whole idea that disasters are ‘acts of God,’” said Andrew Maskrey, a UN adviser to governments on ways to guard against nature’s violence.  

“In a sense, disasters are constructed – through development.” 

Now that they must “redevelop,” Maskrey and others say, the Sri Lankans, Indonesians, Thais, Maldive Islanders and others should rebuild smarter, making themselves less vulnerable, through more sensible land use, with stronger buildings, taking better care of natural barriers that could protect them. 

The United Nations has dispatched experts around the region to help plan this “resilience” to future disasters. It’s calling for reconnaissance satellites to map out the damage and vulnerabilities. But advice is no guarantee of success. 

“Whether the governments manage to implement it is another thing,” said Salvano Briceno, chief UN strategist for disaster reduction. 

One thing governments are managing to implement is an early-warning system for future Indian Ocean tsunamis. 

In Kobe, Japan, last month, delegates to a UN conference on disaster reduction came together to promise such an alert system by next year – a network of buoys, sensors and communications that, had it been in place, might have saved many of the more than 200,000 people killed in the December disaster. 

That immediate human cost of the tsunami is well known. Less quantifiable are the numbers of people injured, physically and mentally, the years of schooling that may be missed, the long-term repercussions of losing doctors and nurses, of driving people to live in shelters, of shattered families, orphans, parents bereft of their children, and livelihoods lost. 

In an already impoverished part of the world, an additional two million people may be driven into poverty by the catastrophe, the Asian Development Bank estimates. 

The bank’s economists say such large national economies as India’s and Indonesia’s will move on with hardly a pause. But “national” glosses over huge local impacts: In two Indian states alone, the loss of livelihoods, mostly fishing, was the human equivalent of shutting down the economy of Boston, eliminating all 600,000-plus paying jobs. 

As for the smaller economies – Sri Lanka and the Maldives – the waves erased years of progress. 

The sight of broken boats among denuded trees, and the 13,000 fishermen dead or missing, led Sri Lankan officials to lament that the struggling island’s fishing industry, a rising export sector, was set back a half-century. 

In the mid-ocean Maldives, the tsunami swept over almost every centimetre of dry land, destroying all roads, electrical lines and other infrastructure on 13 islands. It will take the equivalent of two years’ gross domestic product to repair and rebuild the tiny nation, the bank calculates. 

Along battered shorelines from Indonesia’s Banda Aceh, to Malaysia and Thailand, to India’s east coast, hundreds of acres of fish and shrimp farms were washed away. Thousands of farm-raised groupers littered Malaysian beaches, dead. In Indonesia alone, the aquaculture losses were pegged at US$210mil (RM800mil), the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reports. 

The onrushing ocean waters also flooded farmlands, destroying rice harvests along coastal belts from Indonesia to India, wrecking irrigation and drainage equipment, depositing salt in soils up to 2km or more inland, and ruining the water of countless wells for consumption and crops. 

The Maldives’ subsistence farming – economically insignificant but vital to many islanders – was severely damaged. Coconut, breadfruit, mango and banana trees were uprooted or poisoned by the seawater. The freshwater lens beneath several islands – their only source of drinking water – was contaminated by salt, threatening the future of settlement there. 

Flushing salt-contaminated lands with fresh water would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the UN agriculture agency says. Waiting for rains to flush them naturally could take years. 

“In the Maldives, in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the disaster’s consequences for the environment are very severe,” UN environment chief Klaus Toepfer told the disaster conference. 

The long-term effect on coastal and sea animals – endangered turtle species, for example –remains unknown, but Toepfer’s UN Environment Programme has made preliminary assessments, finding that in Indonesia alone more than 24,000ha of the coast-fringing mangrove and one-third of the offshore coral reef may have been damaged. 

Both reefs and mangroves are vital feeding and breeding grounds for marine life. The tsunami showed they’re also natural buffers for terrestrial life, including humans. 

Reefs ringing the Maldives were credited with helping break the giant waves, heading off even worse destruction there. In some spots in India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, thick mangrove forests similarly softened the hammer blow of the tsunami for villages just inland, authorities reported. 

Protecting and restoring these natural barriers is a key way to rebuild for “disaster reduction,” said the UN Development Programme’s Maskrey. 

“Often, “reconstruct” is taken to mean replace what was there. But then you’re rebuilding the next disaster, when there could be four times the population,” he said in an interview at the Japan conference. 

Instead, for example, tourist hotels – many of which were battered by the tsunami – should be situated with “ecosystem protection,” such as existing or replanted mangrove stands, Maskrey said. 

“Rebuilding smart” also means improving and enforcing building codes; making replacement hospitals, schools, power plants and other critical facilities more disaster-resistant, and rebuilding them at less vulnerable sites, the experts say. 

The route to a safer future also ultimately lies in a more prosperous one, they say, since it’s poverty that drives people to live in flimsy homes in undesirable, vulnerable places, and to take on work that exposes them to risk – in leaky fishing boats, for example. 

The world may look back on the Indian Ocean tsunami as a turning point, said Terry Jeggle, a senior UN planner on disaster reduction. 

“I think it will have a very strong memory input that may translate into policy changes – the clearest one being early warning,” he said. 

Since the Japan conference, specialists from many nations have got down to the business of getting an Indian Ocean tsunami-alert network up and running in 18 months. 

December’s epic tragedy seemed to spur cooperation and political progress in other directions as well: The Sri Lankan government and Tamil separatist rebels worked together on aid distribution, and the Indonesian government entered cease-fire talks with its own separatists in tsunami-stricken Aceh province. 

Some in the region suggest the catastrophe may also prompt richer northern nations to forgive some foreign debt of the less-developed countries in the tsunami zone. 

In the end, however, the surest prediction of the disaster’s long-term impact comes from the seismologists, who point out that only a northern section of the Indian Ocean tectonic plate was involved in the great quake of Dec 26. 

“The question is, when is the other part of the arc going to go?'' said James H. Whitcomb, deep-earth chief for the US National Science Foundation. 

When that southern section of the undersea arc “goes,” off Sumatra, it may send another tsunami racing across the sea, this time probably toward Australia. 

“It’s inevitable. It’s got to happen,'' Whitcomb said of this disaster foretold. Knowing that, he said, “at least gives you time to prepare.” – AP  

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