Global Trends by Martin Khor

Tuesday 27 December 2005

Lessons from the tsunami, one year on

End of another year, and this time we remember the tsunami of 26 December 2004 that came as a tragic post-Christmas blow to the region.  Malaysia pledged to rehabilitate the mangroves, that proved a saviour to many local communities as they blocked the full force of the waves.  But implementation is, as usual, the problem.


It’s been a full year since the earthquake and tsunami that literally and figuratively shook the region.  I still remember the shock those of us who were in Penang at that time felt --  first from the swaying in high-rise apartments caused by the earthquake, then from the death of scores of people as they were swept by the raging tides into the sea.

Only later, through the television news, were we to know that the huge waves were caused by the earthquake off north-west Sumatra.  “Tsunami” then came out of obscurity as a term and became associated with the greatest natural calamity of recent memory.

Malaysia was not spared.  But our losses, though tragic, were not as significant when compared with the sweeping away of whole towns and villages and the losses of lives totaling over 250,000 in Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.  Millions more people lost their homes, property and livelihoods.  In Aceh province alone, 240,000 people died.

A year later, much of the affected areas are still suffering from the devastation.  Some of the hotels in Thailand may have been restored or rebuilt.  But it will take years of reconstruction before the towns and villages recover. 

Even then, the loss of spouses, children, parents, grandparents and other family members can never be made up for.  

The tsunami may have had one good effect – it stirred the conscience and pity of the world.  A record US$4 billion of aid was pledged within a few weeks, and that has helped finance the rehabilitation. 

But more than that was lost. There are continuing squabbles over how the aid money should be used, and the extent to which the poor victims will benefit.  There are reports from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India that some poor people whose houses and land were swept by the waters have had difficulties proving that they were residing there. 

Imagine the plight especially those who have no land titles, or were slum dwellers and squatters.   Even those with titles can face problems since district offices and their documents were also swept away.  

In the past year, scientists have warned that more serious earthquakes may occur in the region, and could spark new tsunamis.  A senior Thai meteorological official, who had once before warned of a tsunami before this one occurred, even predicted a few months ago that a future earthquake could take place that may affect Malaysia and Singapore.

In any case, Malaysians like others have learnt the lesson that even if their country is not directly in an earthquake zone, they can get serious effects via a tsunami generated by the force of an earthquake.

Another lesson from the 26 December tragedy is that the natural coastal environment can be a safeguard against a tsunami. 

Those places which still have mangroves and coral reefs were relatively protected and both lives and property were saved.  Those areas where the vegetation hade been cleared suffered the full force of the waves.

An impact assessment report on the tsunami by the UN Environment Programme confirmed that “healthy coastal ecosystems protected people and property.”

It said that anecdotal evidence and satellite photographs corroborate claims that coral reefs, mangrove forests and other coastal vegetation, as well as peat swamps, provided protection from the impacts of the tsunami.

In Sri Lanka, most of Yala and Bundala National Parks were spared because vegetated coastal sand dunes completely stopped the tsunami, which was only able to enter where the dune line was broken by river outlets.

Some of the severest damage to Sri Lanka’s coast was where mining and damage of coral reefs had been heavy in the past. Similar observations were found in the province of Phang Nga in Thailand, where mangrove forests and sea grass beds significantly mitigated the affect of tsunami.

As an urgent preventive measure against effects of future tsunamis, UNEP proposes better coastal zone management and land-use planning.

There should be integrated coastal management aimed at promoting safe housing, enhanced ability of natural systems to act as bio-shield, and innovative engineering solutions to control coastal erosion.

In  Malaysia, the importance of mangroves as a protective shield against the tsunami was also appreciated as many fishermen testified that their homes were protected by mangroves. 

Just days after the tsunami, Prime Minister Dato Seri Abdullah Badawi called for the protection and rehabilitation of Malaysian mangrove forests. This was hailed as a far-sighted policy.

However, more follow up action is needed. According to Sahabat Alam Malaysia, the task force committee for mangrove replanting had only a modest target of planting 4,000 hectares of mangrove in already protected areas.  This is inadequate.

There are 567,000 hectares of mangroves left in Malaysia, 99,800 in the Peninsular and 467,00 hectares in Sabah and Sarawak. Of this, 130,142 hectares have not been gazetted as protected forests by the State governments.

The unprotected forests can be logged or converted for other uses at any time by the State governments, says SAM.  Some state governments are not taking steps to gazette the remaining forests, and they continue to convert  mangroves to other uses.

SAM fears that aquaculture will undermine mangrove conservation.  About 40,000 hectares have been designated for new aquaculture projects.   This will lead to the displacement of a lot of mangrove forests, or the disturbance of coastal and marine areas that will adversely impact on the mangrove forests.

The tsunami’s effects are still fresh in the minds of many.  The lessons from it should not be lost.  We should not need another tsunami to get us to implement a coastal management plan that includes conservation and replanting of mangroves.