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Tsunamis: Disaster implications global

Disaster Mitigation, by Chris Chiesa, Pacific Disaster Center manager

The Pacific Disaster Center on Mau‘i today launched the Indian Ocean Tsunami Geospatial Information Service to support emergency managers responding to the tsunami disaster in South and Southeast Asia.


The new information service is part of the Center’s Asia Pacific Natural Hazards Information Network (APHNIN, a resource for disaster managers to tap into high-quality geospatial data to reduce disaster risk and vulnerability in the region. The new service will provide information specific to the tsunami that has claimed, at last count more than 200,000 lives.

Accurate geospatial information is an absolutely indispensable resource during disaster response and recovery. This service will support emergency managers and relief agencies as they respond to this tragic event.

Specifically, the Indian Ocean Tsunami Geospatial Information Service will support emergency managers by providing geospatial information including baseline Landsat imagery, SRTM-derived shaded relief images, LANDSCAN-derived population density, detailed coastlines, damage polygons,and high-resolution imagery as it becomes available.

The Indian Ocean Tsunami Geospatial Information Service can be accessed by ESRI GIS applications at

The Pacific Disaster Center provides applied information research and analysis for the development of more effective policies, institutions, programs, and information products for disaster-management and humanitarian assistance communities of the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

Allen Clark, senior research fellow and executive director of the Pacific Disaster Center, said the Pacific Disaster Center takes scientific information and creates a disaster notification alert to all emergency managers in Hawai‘i and elsewhere. “The real tragedy of all this is that the system is there, the technology is there, the capability is there, it just wasn’t in place in the Indian Ocean when the thing hit.”

Charles E. Morrison, president of the East-West Center, said the East-West Center and the Pacific Disaster Center “stand prepared” to do what they can to enhance tsunami warning systems in the Indian Ocean. Morrison said the two centers may organize and host an international workshop for South and Southeast Asian countries to discuss a regional tsunami warning system. Participants could visit Honolulu tsunami facilities.


Political implications, by Arun Swamy, East-West Center research fellow and South Asia specialist


Natural disasters are often a critical test for political systems. Governments can gain or lose legitimacy, nations can win-over or lose minorities by how they respond to these disasters and, more importantly, how they are perceived to respond to them. The tsunamis that hit Asia on Dec. 26 will therefore likely have lasting political consequences.

The most important of these, obviously, will concern the future trajectory of the two longest-running separatist conflicts in Asia — Aceh and Sri Lanka — which are by a strange coincidence the two regions worst affected by the tsunamis.

Early indications suggest that the political consequences will be very different in these two regions. Indonesia’s Aceh province, where government and rebels have declared a ceasefire to allow relief organizations to come in, may well experience a long-term reconciliation.

By contrast, Sri Lanka, where rebel-held territory has apparently not received the benefit of relief supplies, and where both sides are accusing each other for the failing, the early indication is that the tsunami will aggravate the world’s most bitter conflict.

However, the Sri Lankan situation is a little more complicated than it appears. Unlike the Aceh rebels, the Tamil Tigers control territory and act as a government in these areas. The failure to assure adequate relief could end up costing the Tigers political support.

In India, Thailand and Malaysia, governments appear to be responding adequately and even heroically and should build a reservoir of goodwill and national solidarity. The newly elected coalition government in India, and the beleaguered government of Thaksin in Thailand, will likely reap some short-term benefits. In India, the largest and most diverse of the affected countries, the tragedy has elicited an outpouring of private contributions of money and labor from all regions that is a testament to the country’s efforts at creating a common sense of nationhood.

Finally, the tragedy could end up promoting a spirit of solidarity and cooperation in the region as a whole. There is new talk of establishing an early warning system for this kind of eventuality in the future. More visibly, the tragedy has thrust one country, India, into an unfamiliar regional role as its medical and military personnel are called upon to carry out relief efforts in neighboring countries as well as at home. Perhaps one day, cooperation in responding to regional disasters will provide South and Southeast Asia the seeds of regional integration that in Europe were provided by the coal and steel community.

Health implications, by Sumner La Croix, EWC senior fellow in economics

A typical regional disaster in Asia, say a typhoon, often comes with sufficient warning for individuals to secure some property and, most importantly, to take precautions to prevent death and injury among family, friends, and employees. Because the South Asian tsunami disaster hit the region with virtually no warning to residents, the loss of life and property has been extraordinary. The large number of deaths in Aceh, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, and the Maldives will complicate rebuilding efforts, as the owners of damaged properties may no longer be alive, individual records have surely been lost in the flooding, and some families may be preoccupied with personal tragedies rather than immediate rebuilding.

Rebuilding along affected coastlines is likely to proceed relatively quickly, as individuals conclude that such destructive tsunamis occur extremely infrequently and that countries in the region will act quickly to put a regional tsunami warning system in place. Most rebuilding will replicate what was previously in place: vacationers want hotels by the beach; stores locate near the beach to provide goods and services; roads go through these towns. In some areas, such as hilly areas on the Sri Lankan coast, it would be quite expensive to relocate roads and railroads inland. On the other hand, it would certainly be worthwhile for national and local governments to consider whether vital public works, e.g. wells used for drinking water and power stations, could be relocated to less vulnerable locations.

The damage done in India, Thailand, and Indonesia, is severe, yet affects a very small portion of very large countries. In all three cases, resources will have to be diverted from other uses to reconstruction.

While the incomes of regional economies along the East India coast, along Thailand’s southwest coast, and in Indonesia’s extremely hard-hit Aceh province, will be markedly lower and accompanied by enormous individual losses in 2005, they constitute only a small part of their respective national economies. (By analogy, one could consider how the four hurricanes that hit the U.S. Southeast during summer-fall 2004 only slightly reduced U.S. growth rates.) In all three countries, national income is still likely to experience strong growth — 3 percent to 7 percent — albeit perhaps .5-1 percent lower than otherwise.

The situation for Sri Lanka and the Maldives is, however, much more extreme, as a much larger proportion of the national population has been affected by the disaster. These countries face the prospect of a severe recession or even depression unless rebuilding efforts and international aid proceed quickly.

Environmental implications, by Jefferson Fox, EWC senior fellow in environment

It is too early to assess the environmental impacts of the recent tsunami that hit the coasts of Sumatra, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India. It is immediately evident, however, that the tsunami will also kill coral reefs throughout the region. In Bangkok, the English-language newspaper Nation quoted Thai marine scientist, Thon Thamrongnawasawasdi of Bangkok’s Kasetsart University, as saying “The impact is irreversible. We will never get back the past richness. They will never be the same again.”

In addition to the damage caused directly to the reefs by wave action, the sand stirred by the crashing waves cuts off sunlight to the coral. Professor Thon said, “Without the sunlight for photosynthesis, the coral would die. It takes 11 years for coral to show the first sign of recovery.” Without the coral, the marine life that depends on it will also vanish.

Among the areas hit worst by the waves are the low-lying islands Andaman and Nicobar. These islands, already vulnerable to sea-level rise tied to global warming, were swamped by the tsunami. One of the first environmental risks for these islands is to fresh water. Salt water will poison reservoirs of rainwater.

Seafood farms in countries such as Thailand would also have been damaged, and mangrove areas that act as nursery habitats to fish and shrimp will have been churned over pretty thoroughly. The damage to mangroves has not yet been reported but could be severe. In India, the damage to thousands of mechanized boats and country craft in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh has been reported to affect the fishing industry, especially export of shrimps and other varieties.

Other secondary damage can result from sewage and chemical pollution following the destruction caused by a tsunami. Damage of intake, discharge, and storage facilities also can present dangerous problems.

Fires resulting from oil spills or combustion from damaged ships in port, or from ruptured coastal oil storage and refinery facilities, can cause damage greater than that inflicted directly by the tsunami. This does not appear to have occurred this time. Reports from India suggest that its oil and gas operations in offshore Andhra Pradesh were not affected by the tsunami. In a press statement, officials from Cairn Energy reported “Our offshore operations in Andra Pradesh Eastern India and in the Bay of Bengal off Bangladesh are working as normal.” Cairn Energy is exploring for oil and gas in the Krishna Godavari deep sea, off the Andhra coast, and is the operator of the Ravva oil and gas fields, which produces 54,000 barrels of crude oil every day. “There was no damage or impact to the Ravva field which Cairn operates off the Andra Pradesh coastline,” it said. The Sangu gas field and ongoing drilling operations in the Bay of Bengal are also working as normal.

Economic implications, by Nancy Lewis, EWC research director

The series of earthquakes with epicenters off of Aceh (Northern Sumatra) and the resultant tsunamis have had a devastating impact on Southeast Asia, South Asia, islands in the Indian Ocean, and as far away as the East coast of Africa. More than 100,000 have died and the death toll is still mounting. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, have been injured. In addition, critical infrastructure, including hospitals and health centers, has been destroyed and millions have lost their homes,possessions, and livelihoods. The U.N. warned that this could prove to be the worst natural disaster in modern times.

The longer term impacts may, however, be greater than the tsunamis. Specifically with respect to health, contaminated water, lack of sanitation, crowded resettlement camps, lack of adequate food, shortages of medical supplies and personnel, and stagnant water that encourages the breeding of insect vectors that transmit diseases, such as dengue and malaria, could magnify the impact of the Dec. 26 event. Children and the elderly are most vulnerable. For the young, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems, there can be a synergism between malnutrition and infection. Executive Director of UNICEF, Carol Bellamy, has been quoted in news reports as saying “Standing water is as deadly as moving water.”

The greatest needs are for safe water, sanitation, food, health and medical personnel, and supplies. Contaminated water will rapidly lead to outbreaks of water-borne diseases that cause diarrhea and dysentery. Cholera, a waterborne disease often found in coastal areas, is a serious threat. Poor sanitation and poor nutrition compound the situation. Stagnant water increases the likelihood of mosquito and other vector breeding, increasing the potential for the transmission of malaria and dengue, two endemic infections in the region, as well as other vector-borne disease. Another ecologically complex disease, leptospirosis, is endemic in the region and increases are seen after flooding. There were several cases in October on the University of Hawai‘i campus after a flash flood. The crowding in resettlement camps increases the likelihood of both water-borne and vector-borne disease, as well as sets up conditions for the transmission of acute respiratory infections that can be fatal. In addition to the lack of adequate sanitation and toilet facilities, the lack of adequate water for hand washing and bathing increases the potential for disease transmission.

The World Health Organization, the International Red Cross, a number of U.N. agencies, international NGOs, foreign governments, and others are responding to the critical needs. The East-West Center is the managing partner of the Hawai‘i-based Pacific Disaster Center, and that organization is providing information support to a number of agencies, including the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, and the U.S. Pacific Command. We will not know the full impact of the devastating event for months and years. All the nations affected were experiencing development challenges before Dec. 26. That the tsunamis impacted heavily populated poor coastal areas as well as tourist resorts—important economic engines for these economies—will undoubtedly magnify the impact.

U.S. - Muslim Relations, by Richard W. Baker, EWC Indonesia specialist and 20-year veteran U.S. Foreign Service officer

HONOLULU (Jan. 10)–As has been noted in a number of news reports and commentaries, the devastating Dec. 26 tsunami off Sumatra provides an opportunity for the United States to improve its badly battered reputation in the Islamic world, especially in Southeast Asia. Perhaps the most striking image in this regard was the initial arrivals of helicopter-borne U.S. troops on Indonesian soil, where they were welcomed literally as lifesavers by the fervently Islamic Acehnese. This picture alone shows the power of a sincere response to genuine disaster to enable peoples to put differences aside.

Thus it is quite correct to see the possibility that the American response to the disaster—from civilian society as well as from the government—could lead to an improvement or at least a mitigation of attitudes toward the United States on the part of the Muslim community in Indonesia (and elsewhere). However, this response also needs to be handled carefully and sensitively. The tsunami response is not and should not be seen, in the United States or the region, as some sort of public relations exercise.

The fact is that the virtually spontaneous reaction to the tragedy reflects humanitarianism and generosity of spirit, aspects of American life and society that are well established and have been long recognized, but which have tended to be obscured recently by the high-decibel international (and American) controversy over the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq.

There can be no doubt that the Iraq issue, which has heightened attention to and concern over American policy in the Middle East generally and U.S.-Israel relations specifically, has greatly eroded confidence in the United States throughout the Muslim world. What the U.S. response to the tsunami can do is to throw light on these broader and more fundamental American attributes of charity and concern for the suffering of others. This can be a step toward rebalancing international understanding and attitudes about the United States and its global role.

The keys here are sincerity and follow through. A sustained American response to the tsunami, with initial steps followed up by long-term commitments, would provide the most eloquent demonstration of the good will of American society and the Bush administration. Any organized effort to extract short-term mileage from the operation would only sully its spirit and detract from the true intention and sentiment involved. The effort should speak for itself. Self-congratulation and exploitation would as easily backfire as reinforce the positive and lasting impact.

Richard W. Baker can be reached at (808) 944-7371 or

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