Tsunami: Four years on
Four years ago on this day, one of the greatest
calamities ever experienced in living memory devastated many
countries in the Indian Ocean region. The Boxing Day Tsunami of
2004, triggered by a massive 9.2 undersea earthquake off
Indonesia, eventually killed nearly 250,000 people in 11
countries from Indonesia to Somalia in far-away Africa.
Sri Lanka was one of the worst affected countries, with
nearly 40,000 deaths. Nearly one million people in coastal areas
were rendered homeless.
The Nation struggled to come to terms with the enormity of
the tragedy for a number of days, but the massive outpouring of
grief translated into an unprecedented relief effort with local
and international support. The rehabilitation process in terms
of rebuilding damaged structures including houses, schools,
places of worship, hospitals is mostly complete, but the healing
of mental scars will perhaps never be.
Four years on, the bitter memories of the tsunami still
remain. There is one crucial difference, though. In 2004, only a
handful knew even the meaning of the word tsunami (Japanese for
massive tidal wave), leave alone seen one. With the tsunami
behind us, there is almost 100 per cent awareness of the
magnitude of the destruction that could be caused by a tsunami.
People are now willing to evacuate their coastal dwellings at
the merest warning or earthquake alert. This is a positive
development, to say the least.
Today, on National Safety Day, we should ponder on that
possibility. Scientists are already predicting that an even more
ferocious tsunami could hit our shores within just 30 years -
within the lifetime of more than half the world's present
population. With several earthquakes and minor tsunamis reported
from the Sumatra region during the last four years, that is
almost a foregone conclusion. An Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning
System, of which Sri Lanka is an integral part, is almost
complete and ideally, coastal dwellers should get a waning
within minutes of an earthquake occurring in the region.
Quite apart from a tsunami, Sri Lanka could also experience a
bigger inland earthquake, judging by some of the tremors we have
experienced in various parts of the country. Most countries now
require earthquake-resistant building techniques at least for
high-rise buildings. We are not aware whether such laws already
exist in this country, but they should be enacted sooner rather
The change of weather patterns caused by Global Warming is
also resulting in heavy rains and floods in totally unexpected
seasons and places. The spate of landslides witnessed in recent
times is another cause for concern.
While Man cannot still stop or prevent natural disasters per
se, there are certain steps we can take to mitigate any damage.
For example, it was proven in 2004 that coastal areas with dense
mangroves and coral reefs escaped substantial damage. Stopping
the further destruction of such natural barriers is an easily
enforceable preliminary step. Likewise, we should conserve the
remaining forest cover, restrict constructions in
landslide-prone areas and coastal areas and take other such
steps to minimise damage to the environment.
It is also essential that Indian Ocean countries work in
tandem in terms of tsunami research, disaster preparedness,
relief structures and warning systems. The SAARC countries with
coastal areas must form a task force to address these issues.
Other regional bodies can also evolve similar structures. Closer
cooperation with the tsunami warning centres in Hawaii and Japan
is also vital.
Although Governments can lay the groundwork for responding to
disasters, it should ultimately be a community initiative.
Community-level organisations are a must in tsunami-prone areas.
There should also be a mechanism to control the mushrooming of
Non-Governmental Organisations that inevitably follows any
natural calamity. It has been revealed that many of the NGOs
that virtually invaded Asian countries in the aftermath of the
2004 disaster had done little or no relief work. Only selected
NGOs with a proven track record must be allowed to undertake
The 2004 Boxing Day tragedy must remain in our collective
memory. It should not be allowed to fade, lest the future
generations forget the sheer horror of it all. One cannot
predict the future with any accuracy, but remembering the past
will help us to face any eventuality in the future.