Asian Tsunami- Science, Development And Geopolitics

THE 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.
But 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.


There 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.

Aceh 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.

The 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.

The 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!

The 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 trajectory.

There 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.

Further, 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 damage.

All 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.

At 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!


It 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).

India 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.

Clearly, 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.

It 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!

Of 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 day! 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.

Australia 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.


Yet, 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.

Interestingly, 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 strictly.

The 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.

Predictably, 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. Hopefully 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.