Sustainable Future?

Sir Martin Rees says we have only a 50% chance of seeing out this century as a human species. Can we alter the balance of probabilities by adopting sensible development policies and actions for sustainability?

Thursday, January 01, 2004


As people begin to clean up after the tsunami, the dead have all been buried, tourists have returned home, and aid money begins to flow for reconstruction, it is worth spending a few minutes thinking about the lessons learned and how they should be applied in the post-disaster phase. This is not in any sense trying to minimize the scale and horror of the disaster confronting Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar (where very little information has been provided), Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Maldives and parts of Africa. For many years, I worked on sustainable development issues in the region of Indonesia that was hardest hit, including Siberut Island off the coast of Sumatra that will have been totally devastated, so my heart cries for all those who have perished and even more for those left behind trying to pick up the pieces of their lives.

My first observation is that humans have lost some of their indigenous knowledge about tsunamis. Because they occur so infrequently, whole generations have never seen or even heard about tsunamis. When people saw the water being sucked from the shore, instead of running for the hills, they came closer to the beach to observe what was going on. One observation in Sri Lanka was that there was thousands of human bodies but hardly any dead animals. Could it be that animals recognize the danger signs and flee to safety in an instinctive reaction, or are they just stronger swimmers? As the damage is likened to a nuclear explosion, my first recommendation is that tsunami education should be like the drills that school children received during the Cold War. In those days, we laughed about ducking under desks or lying flat on the floor, but we would have reacted instinctively if the worst had happened. The same should happen with tsunamis - if you see the water being sucked from shore, run like hell to high ground, as you only have a few minutes to react. As one third of the victims were children, this lesson should be constantly reinforced in all coastal areas.

The media has made much mileage out of the lack of an early warning system. There would not have been much time to react in Aceh, where two thirds of the deaths occurred, but in Sri Lanka, Maldives, India and Bangladesh a comprehensive warning system would have saved thousands of lives. The argument that such a warning system would cost too much simply doesn't ring true - it is all a question of priorities, and surely the first priority of any government is to protect its people from harm. In Bangladesh, where I worked on a coastal greenbelt project, after thousands had been killed by a series of storm surges in the Bay of Bengal, the government installed a chain of concrete "bunkers" where people could run to and find refuge until the tides subsided. The bunkers can store clean water and emergency food supplies for several days. They also planted thousands of trees along the coastal protection bunds, as many people had been saved in previous disasters by clinging to the tops of coconut trees. So my second recommendation is to act while international pressure is focused on the area and install a 24-hour tsunami and tidal surge warning system throughout the Indian Ocean and make sure it is maintained. This must be backed by a coordinated system of alerting all coastal dwellers, such as applies in Japan, where if the lights blink three times, you know there is a tsunami on the way. Village loudspeakers could be installed and automatically activated by a central command structure, and such a system could be used for other purposes as well. I recall the communes in China all had loudspeaker systems installed in the rice fields and messages from the Communist Party were constantly beamed into the masses, interspersed with martial sounding music. Not that I am suggesting that the village loudspeakers be used in the same way. My third recommendation is to install solid concrete bunkers that can withstand a tsunami, even if the walls have to be a meter thick, in all coastal villages. These structures can be made multi-purpose, such as for village meeting halls, but their primary purpose is to provide a safe haven within, say, a 100 meter radius, especially in those villages where there is no high ground for quite some distance and on low-lying islands. They should also be kept permanently stocked with clean water, tarpaulins, tents and emergency food supplies. I know that the economists among you will say that this measure is too expensive, but again it is a matter of priorities. There is some evidence that tsunamis tend to come in pairs, so the next one may not be all that far away.

There has been a suggestion that the Maldives suffered relatively little damage because its coral reefs are still in place and absorbed a lot of the energy of the tsunami before it struck the land. I suspect it may be due to the waves completely passing over the islands, without dissipating too much energy as they passed. I had friends on a dive boat near Phuket, Thailand who said the waves passed under the boat without them noticing. It was only when they got back to shore that the scale of the damage was obvious. Where a tsunami runs up an inclined slope, the wall of water is pushed higher and higher and much of the damage is caused when the water runs out to sea again. Successive waves complete the job of removing structures damaged by the first waves. On low lying islands, the water can completely flow over the island and the wave continue on its path with little of the energy dissipated. Nevertheless, protection of coral reefs and mangrove forests will help to absorb some of the energy and my fourth recommendation is to embark on a massive program of reef and mangrove rehabilitation. This will not only provide long term security but will also provide short term jobs for the survivors. The other benefits will be to coastal fisheries and other coastal ecosystems. For the dubious economists, I have worked on both coral reef protection and mangrove rehabilitation projects in Indonesia and can assure you that the numbers stack up.

Finally, many countries have laws or regulations specifying setbacks from the coast for housing development, that have been ignored for decades. These setback provisions take various forms and use various formulas, but they make sense not only for tsunamis and tidal waves, but also for sea level rise due to climate warming over the next 50 years or so. It would be a tragic mistake to reconstruct all of these coastal villages close to the water's edge. My fifth recommendation is that all governments concerned should enact tougher setback provisions in law and enforce the law. Those that lose the rights to use their land for housing, resort development, or other built structures may need to be compensated. In the setback areas, priority should be given to forest development, as trees will help absorb the energy of future tsunamis, will prevent coastal erosion due to rising sea levels, and will meet national objectives for reforestation.

The World Bank has promised $250 million in aid for reconstruction and other multilateral donors, like ADB, will probably pledge similar amounts. The global development community should insist that the money is not only well spent but also provides long term security and protection for all coastal dwellers.


At November 8, 2005 at 6:46 AM, Blogger Living in Thailand said...

We have a website that was created during the Tsunami please let us know if any people there is found and we will delete themAfter the Tsunami

At October 23, 2007 at 3:06 AM, Blogger Vincenzo said...

nice blog


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