Asian Tsunami: Science, Development And Geopolitics

People’s Democracy

Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 03

January 16,

Asian Tsunami: Science, 

Development And Geopolitics 



death toll from the tsunami that hit south-east and south Asia on December 26,
2004, has officially crossed 150,000 and is quite likely to cross the 200,000
mark as relief operations proceed and a large number of those currently listed
as “missing” are finally pronounced dead. The human tragedy in the
region has been horrendous. Quite apart from the terrible loss of life,
infrastructure, dwellings and means of livelihood of millions have been
destroyed. Whatever be the relative ranking of the tsunami disaster among
natural calamities, it has prompted clearly the largest ever international
relief and rehabilitation effort.


this Asian disaster is not about records. It is about the need for greater
understanding of tsunamis, their behaviour and impact, and measures that can be
taken to provide advance warning of any subsequent occurrence. The havoc wreaked
by the tsunamis also highlight basic developmental problems in India and in the
region as a whole, and point to directions in which long-term rehabilitation
efforts need to be oriented. And, inevitably, the on-going international relief
efforts, the international co-operation required for potential early warning
systems, and the roles of different countries and international agencies in
these, also bring to the fore unfolding geo-political trends.




has been considerable speculation, often caused by a lack of understanding of
the behaviour of tsunamis, and several rumours about why the tsunami struck in
particular places or why it caused more damage in some places.  


province of Indonesia, which saw the greatest destruction and loss of lives, was
the closest to the epicentre of the 9.0 Richter magnitude earthquake and huge
tsunamis almost immediately hit Aceh with enormous ferocity. Aceh province
itself is low-lying with a flat terrain leading to almost total inundation by
the tsunami. Almost two-thirds of the fatalities were in the two largest
Acehnese towns of Banda Aceh, the capital, and Meunaboh. In the entire tsunami
hit region, these were by far the largest human settlements and took the
heaviest battering.


Thai tourist resorts of Phuket and Phi Phi were badly affected by the tsunamis
for the same reason that made them popular tourist destinations: shallow beaches
closer to shore and deep blue waters not very far away. This relatively sudden
rise of the ocean floor causes the tsunami waves to rapidly gain height, hitting
the coast with great force. Similarly, the ocean off Sri Lanka’s and parts of
southern India’s east coast, as in Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu for example, is a
few kilometres deep just a few thousand metres from the shore. On the other
hand, in coastal Andhra Pradesh or Bangladesh, the Bay of Bengal remains quite
shallow even at distances greater than 100-150 kilometres from the shore due to
which tsunami waves lose considerable energy by the time they reach the shore.


Maldives, although quite severely affected in terms of submergence, did not
suffer too much loss of life or damage because the island group is so low lying,
mostly just a few feet above sea level, that the tsunamis simply washed over the
islands without gaining too much height and continued on their journey!


damage to Kanyakumari, which should have been sheltered by Sri Lanka, and the
extensive destruction in south-west Sri Lanka which is on the opposite side to
the approach of the tsunami, are explained by the fact that the upsurge of sea
waters rushed through the “funnel” between Sri Lanka and the tip of
the Indian peninsula. After crossing Sri Lanka and the Maldives, part of the
tsunami also appears to have been deflected northwards by undersea formations in
the deep Indian Ocean causing it to hit Somalia further north than its original


has been some wild speculation recently, laced with conspiracy theories, about
why the US naval base in Diego Garcia south-west of the Maldives in the Indian
Ocean, escaped tsunami damage and whether this was because the US gave its base
advance warning about the tsunami (based on its Pacific Tsunami Warning System)
but did not relay the same warning to other Indian Ocean nations. However, the
fact is that the US and many other countries were as much taken by surprise as
anyone else by the tsunami.


Diego Garcia is located in one of the deepest parts of the Indian Ocean, west of
the Chagos Trench, a deep chasm plunging to more than 5 kilometres deep. The
depth of the surrounding seas, and the gentle slope to the shores of the atoll,
does not allow tsunami waves to build up to any great height. Due to these
geological features, the tsunami arrived at Diego Garcia more like a tidal surge
of less than two metres height. Further, the tsunami hit the uninhabited eastern
side of the atoll whereas most US military facilities are situated on the
northwest side. Commercial satellite images of the island before and after the
tsunami shows some beach erosion and minor debris, but no other significant


this goes to show that, even if a warning system indicates that a tsunami has
originated from an earthquake or some other cause, many other factors need to be
reckoned with before location-specific warnings are issued to particular
countries or areas. Speed and direction of the tsunami, undersea formations both
along coasts and elsewhere on the tsunami path, all must be factored in before
useful tsunami warnings can be issued.


the recent ASEAN tsunami conference, a decision was taken to set up a Tsunami
Warning System but no more details were forthcoming, obviously because the
various countries had differing perceptions of the architecture of the system,
how it was going to be paid for and run. There are also national-security
sensitivities involved in others gathering data from a country’s shore. Recent
developments suggest there is even an element of one-upmanship at play with the
US offering to extend its Pacific TWS to the Indian ocean, India declaring its
intention to set up an independent TWS at a cost of $27 million (approximately
Rs 135 crore) — which appears a gross underestimate — and Japan also
offering to set up one! At the time of going to press, the UN’s World
Meteorological Organisation and UNESCO have suggested a global Natural Disaster
Warning System embracing cyclones, earthquakes and tsunamis! 



must be said that India has responded to and handled the aftermath of the
tsunamis much better than it has handled previous natural disasters, admittedly
with several limitations and many of the old failures, assisted no doubt by the
fact that the destruction was mostly along a narrow 2-5 km stretch of coast in
readily identifiable and fairly accessible habitations (except in the Andaman
and Nicobar islands).  


also rushed aid to Sri Lanka and the Maldives within hours of the tsunami hits
there, and to Aceh in Indonesia a few days later. India not only refused aid
from other countries, saying it could manage on its own resources and the money
should be sent to those who need it more, it also provided Sri Lanka $20 million
(roughly Rs 100 crore) cash assistance, not pledges as has been the case with
some advanced countries such as the US. India refusing external assistance is
not new, the same having been done for over a decade in the case of
developmental aid and, in times of disasters, was also done during the Gujarat
earthquake. But the relatively insistent, even aggressive, outward orientation
of India following the tsunami disaster, is indeed the first that has provoked
mixed responses some appreciation and much comment in the world’s media and
political capitals.


India has been motivated not only by humanitarian considerations, but also by a
desire to project an image of a mature, self-reliant and relatively advanced
country, a regional power that cannot only look after its own problems but
simultaneously help others.
  After all, India is seeking a seat in the UN Security Council
with veto powers, that is, as a full partner with other world powers. 


also needs noting that India’s outreach, as indeed that of other countries
assisting in the relief effort, was mainly through deployment of military
assets, chiefly ships carrying relief supplies (some converted to floating
hospitals such as the one sent to Aceh), helicopters (although tiny but
well-equipped. Singapore sent heavy-lift Chinook helicopters to help clear large
wreckage) and transport aircraft carrying supplies and trained personnel capable
of technical tasks like repairing bridges, electricity generators etc and
constituting precisely the kind of organised, disciplined force required during
relief operations. It is no coincidence that soon Pakistan too sent two ships to
Sri Lanka!


course, US president George Bush’s claim to the press after visiting the
Indian Embassy in Washington that India had assumed this leadership role as
“part of the 4-nation Core Group [US, Japan, Australia and India] that the US
had put together” was clearly an attempt to take credit for what had already
taken place!

It was also an effort to overcome the harsh criticism levelled against the US
from numerous quarters that it was responding to the crisis in a stingy way: the
US had first offered $15 million, then increased it to $50 million and then to
$350 million, still less than a fifth of what it spends on the Iraq occupation every
! And this when citizens the world over, and in Western countries in
particular, were responding overwhelmingly, with donations in Britain for
example exceeding the amount of government aid announced. At the time of writing
more than $6 billion had been pledged with Australia topping the list with $1
billion and Japan being second at $650 million.


was keen to have a large naval presence but it appeared Indonesia was not too
keen given its traditional suspicion of the former’s intentions, vindicated by
the Australian role during the secession of East Timor from Indonesia. Indonesia
allowed only Indian and Singaporean vessels off Meunaboh. Australia has long
held ambitions of being a regional superpower, backed by the US, and, in its
official national security doctrine, has specifically noted the challenge posed
to these ambitions by India’s growing naval strength especially its “blue
water” (deep ocean) capability.
That India was
able to make its presence felt in the face of rather naked US and Australian
power projection in the region is noteworthy.   




India’s stance of claiming to have “extensive experience with and expertise
in dealing with natural calamities”, to be “at the frontline of disaster
management” and offering its “expertise” to other countries appeared
overstated and sounded like bragging at a time when humility in the face of the
enormous tragedy was most called for.
Especially so since India was in fact struggling to cope efficiently with
the disaster at home and was bungling on several fronts, notably in issuing a
false tsunami alarm causing widespread panic in India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia
coming as it did from a country parading as a rising scientific power. Setting
up a Tsunami Warning System would be easier and may appear to be a quick-fix
solution, but would deliver less lasting results than true all-round development
with special attention to vulnerable sections during natural calamities.


several state governments have called upon the central government to strengthen
the Coastal Zone Regulatory Act (CZRA) prohibiting developmental activity within
500 metres of the high-tide line on the shore (the farthest point inshore where
the sea would reach at maximum tide). The same state governments were till
recently berating the CZRA and calling for a roll-back, much like the recently
announced draft National Environment Policy did. Imagine the number of lives and
damage to property that would have been saved had the CZRA been enforced


media has been full of stories about fisherfolk reluctant to think about
alternate more pucca housing further inland from the beaches where they are
vulnerable to tsunamis, tidal waves and cyclones, bearing the brunt of all these
calamities each time. The reason is obvious: fisherfolk have to look after their
catamarans and fishing nets which also have to be dried out. Is it not
possible to develop fishing docks with proper and safe berthing facilities which
can enable housing to be shifted inland?
The prime minister has even spoken
of “modernising” the Indian fishing industry. One only hopes this does
not imply shifting Indian fishing away from artisanal fishing to larger
industrial trawlers and vessels.  


the UPA government announced its intention to form a Disaster Management
Authority. Again this would be useful only if disaster management goes
hand-in-hand with appropriate development planning and strategies. How many
times after major earthquakes have we not heard about quake-proof housing, or
about cyclone-proof housing after major storms, but with no meaningful action
after the immediate crisis blows over.
history will not repeat itself and India will truly be able to hold its head
high among the comity of nations, not just because it can launch satellites and
operate warning systems, not only because it can project military power, but
because it can truly develop capability to look after its people.