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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 than later.

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 relief work.

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.

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