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Tsunami: a lesson in natural disasters?
9 January 2008 Hervé Bonnaveira

No-one has forgotten those terryfying images. 7000 dead on the Andaman and Nicobar islands, 8200 in Thailand. Here on the ground, each survivor has a story to tell. Listening to their message could avert future disasters.

As we travel up the Indian Ocean coast devasted by the Boxing Day Tsunami back in 2004, we talk to survivors and try to assess what has changed over the last three years. (Translated by Rashaad JORDEN)

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A show of the forces of nature on Wandoor beach, Andaman Islands

The luckiest were on their boats, like this beach café owner in Wandoor on the west coast of South Andaman. Possessing a calm face with many Bengali features and long curly hair, he told us about having barely felt a light, unusual boat roll at sea that morning. How surprised wasn’t he to see his house completely destroyed upon his return by about ten successive waves. A tsunami had passed by. His house and family, who were located high up, were spared from the tides.

Robert, a Swedish tourist sleeping on Havelock’s number one beach with his friends, said: “We were woken up at seven a.m. You could say someone was shaking the bungalow. It lasted a good five minutes. When we went out, the sea had disappeared in the distance. A half-hour later, the water returned but it was up to our hips and there was a big stream flowing. When we thought that everything was over, we went out to pick up our belongings in the bungalow but another wave with a similar amplitude sent us back toward the land. During the five days that followed, we were cut off from the world, no telephone was working, and all the boats for Port Blair were taken by storm. We were on the missing person’s list. Embassy employees came to count the surviving tourists, but Swedish ones didn’t have an international telephone. Our parents were worried but we didn’t know the catastrophe was also as strong in all of Asia.”

On the archipelago, it’s mostly the Little Andaman and the Nicobar Islands, which are directly exposed to the open sea, that suffered the most spectacular damage. The beaches are still covered with giant trees uprooted by the violence of the jolt. Waves from six to fifteen meters high devastated entire villages, killing sometimes two-thirds of the population and leaving the survivors homeless. Certain indigenous populations attuned to natural indicators (animals’ escape, the sea) seemed to have anticipated the tsunami and took refuge in the mountains.

In Thailand, even if the complete reconstruction of the coastline - aided by foreign capital - barely lasted a year, the people haven’t forgotten. The most poignant testimonies were without doubt those of Oliver, excited about diving and his wife Pom, at whose house we were royally welcomed in Khuraburi. Oliver was with his friend Wichian on the island of Ko Surin, two hours by boat from the coast. He showed us the amateur video of a tourist also present. We see a group there waiting for a boat in line for an excursion. The retreating sea, tourists somewhat astonished by this sudden low tide that’s advancing however to be able to take off…

"That guy, a friend of mine who doesn’t wear a life vest, vanished," Oliver tells us. On the horizon already, we infer that a thin white curtain is approaching. It only seems like a little wave and the people seemed amused by the foam on their thighs. The wave takes them back toward the beach but seems to continue its progression with more violence even beyond the shore. Quite quickly, they loose footing and a bit of panic takes hold of them. In spite of their efforts to flail in the water, the majority are brought to their feet up to what the strong flow of the wave’s ebb tide leads them finally toward to the open sea.

“We were very worried but happy to still be alive. About forty minutes later after having thought about the continent, the highest wave arrived. I was looking for my belongings on the beach when the refugees above shouted to me: ‘Run, run!’ and I ran without looking back.”

Meanwhile, Pom was six meters up on the top of a fortune tree on a Khao Lak beach. She wouldn’t have tried such an adventure if she hadn’t been pushed by her friends below and the rising level of water.

"It was an old tree full of red ants but I wasn’t feeling their bites. The increasingly thin branches were breaking as I was rising. I was praying for the water level not to rise. When the water level absolutely went down again, I couldn’t free my arms as I was frozen!"

2004’s unprecedented tsunami revealed the vulnerability of the coastal population against natural catastrophes. Three years later, is it still possible?

The extent of the damage comes from the fact the population wasn’t ready for such a phenomenon and the alarm systems were nonexistent. All the gathered testimonies prove to us from now on, the people will be very aware of the signs of tsunamis and what attitude to take. The affected countries have, with the support of the United Nations, put into place such a surveillance system that already existed in the Pacific. The Indian Ocean Tsunami and Mitigation System consists of a network of seismographs, buoys, and water pressure units. In case of danger, the warning is dispersed over all waves in less than twenty minutes – on the condition of not being in a fishers’ village. In Phuket, like everywhere else in Thailand, alarms were installed as well as boards indicating the nearest shelter. However, the efficiency of this surveillance system still remains to be seen. July 17, 2006, an earthquake with a magnitude off the coast caused an unexpected tsunami killing more than 600 and leaving about 100,000 victims. September 12, 2007, the alarm was triggered following earthquakes in Indonesia without a tsunami finally taking place.

All of this increasingly capable technology must not cause one of the main factors aggravating natural catastrophes to be forgotten: the deterioration of the environment. A published report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) suggests that the tsunami caused as much damage in the zones where natural barriers, such as mangroves, coral reefs or coastal vegetation, were present. Everywhere, man digs trenches, cuts forests, dries swamplands, paves over the waterfront to build still more buildings with a view over the sea. Getting past the multiplication of climatic hazards (cyclones, floods, droughts in particular), it’s up to man to adapt by living with the environment and not against it: constructing differently, restoring wetlands that act as buffer zones against natural catastrophes and pollution filters, and protecting coral reefs that shatter waves…

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Links in Spanish: http://www.alertatierra.com/ Actualité des catastrophes naturelles

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