Discovery Guides Areas


Tsunamis and the International Response:
Economic, Social and Environmental Dimensions

(Released April 2005)

  by Ben Fertig, Tanya Foster and Irene Nicholas  


Key Citations

Web Sites



Review Article

On December 26, 2004, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake in the Indian Ocean generated a tsunami described as one of the deadliest natural disasters in modern history.1 This tsunami devastated coastal areas of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, southern India, Thailand, and other nations, leaving death and destruction in its wake. Casualties are estimated, albeit incompletely, from 228,000 to 310,000.2 Meanwhile, international aid pledges for the damaged regions have reached 3 billion USD (about 2.3 billion euros) from across the globe. Past experience shows that rebuilding takes years of momentous effort. For instance, in Hokkaido, Japan, it took over five years to completely recover from a 1993 earthquake-triggered tsunami.3

This Hot Topic provides an overview of the ongoing recovery, examining links between environmental and economic issues. Ecosystem disruption may hinder mariculture, agriculture, and tourism, as well as create local pollution, ruining otherwise clean water. The Hot Topic further looks at preventing future devastation by implementing early warning systems. The technological and political infrastructure required for an international tsunami monitoring and warning system is already partly in place, but must be expanded to the Indian Ocean. Many lessons learned in coordinating relief operations between international agencies, governments, and local experience can be applied toward integrating early warning systems. Furthermore, many of the satellite, global information, and communication networks critical in Tsunami early warning are also useful in relief efforts.

Global Support for a Global Disaster

With the outpouring of support from the global community, the recent tsunami disaster in South Asia has highlighted a number of factors regarding the coordination and delivery of international aid. These include difficulties regarding financing such missions, providing the required type and amount of supplies, and bringing aid to affected populations while dealing with home and foreign governments. In addition, aid providers must consider the safety of their workers vis-à-vis any possible security situation in areas of operation.

The international community has responded to many natural and human disasters over time, from earthquakes and floods to famine and war. Several national and international agencies have procedures in place to facilitate the collection and delivery of aid to stricken areas.4 Additionally, nongovernmental organizations and private donations often contribute to this process.5 The mobilization of aid for the areas affected by the tsunamis has been rapid due to the massive extent of the damage in both property and human life. Local and international aid organizations, private individuals, and the US military were all organized and dispatched to the area within days.

As supplies and workers arrived in South Asia, the immense scope of the project confronted them. The tsunami killed thousands, and left many more homeless. Meanwhile, crucial information regarding casualties and economic losses had still not been fully assessed. During aid operations, it is expected that there will be gaps in the available information.6 Logistics management helps organizations meet the needs of the population regardless of the paucity of information and unexpectedness of the situation.7 In addition to simple logistics, aid agencies must be able to mobilize financial and physical resources, as well as staff, rapidly and effectively.8 Areas affected by a disaster must have needs, such as food, water, and shelter, met immediately. However, economic rehabilitation is also paramount for recovery in areas where productive capacities have been affected. Strategies that can be quickly implemented, such as food-for-work programs, provide immediate relief for disaster-affected areas while also contributing to long-term recovery.9 For example, in many of these areas fishing and aquaculture are major economic drivers. Repair of damaged boats, fishing equipment, and mariculture infrastructure is a priority in returning people to work, providing jobs and food, and restoring a sense of normalcy.

As well as organizing logistics and delivery, aid agencies must also coordinate with each other and with the governments of affected nations.10 Thus far the tsunami disaster has evinced the type of national and international cooperation seen in areas such as India after its own earlier disasters (cyclones in 1977 and 1979 and an earthquake in 2001), where nongovernmental organizations worked effectively with the national government to provide aid.11 While central governments are responsible for their citizens' welfare, analysts suggest that nongovernmental organizations may be more efficient in the coordination of community matters in the wake of a disaster.12 However, there is often tension and uncertainty among experts, managers brought in to deal with a natural disaster, the various involved governments, and the people in need of aid.13 Thus, these agencies are not only required to collect and deliver aid, but also to negotiate multiple political and inter-organizational obstacles.

Once aid supplies have reached a stricken region and after an agency has been granted access to the area, decisions must be made as to how to distribute the resources. Aid allocation presents its own challenges to the leadership of nations and aid organizations. The goal of a relief operation is to see that help is given to those who need it and that any services provided will be of use to those affected.

Return to Top

Impediments to Aid

In the wake of a large disaster, it is often difficult to accurately assess aid allocation.14 Additionally, populations may be adversely affected by current government policies that neglect or disadvantage them in the face of disasters.15 Aid allocation may affect or be affected by the social organization of an area. It may empower or disempower groups and change their participation levels in society and the economy.16 The South Asian nations affected by the tsunami represent a spectrum of governments and social organizations from democratic with a caste-based society (India) to military junta with a closed society (Myanmar/Burma). These factors, along with the social composition of the affected regions, enter into calculations made by agencies operating in the area.

Geographically, a wide range of nations from Africa to Asia were affected by the tsunami. However, the two hardest hit nations, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, have also been fighting long-running civil wars. Indonesia has faced a rebellion in the Aceh province, while Sri Lanka has been engaged in a conflict with the separatist Tamil Tigers.17 The conflicts in both nations have affected and been affected by responses to the disaster. The need for warring parties to collaborate has reduced the intensity of conflict in Indonesia, leading to calls for a permanent cease-fire, while in Sri Lanka, rebels are reacting to perceived social and political injustice in aid distribution patterns, decreasing the likelihood of peaceful conflict resolution.

International aid is often required in areas enduring internal conflict. In such situations, the response to any disaster (natural or human) must be complex, reacting not only to the human suffering, but also to a tenuous political situation that risks exacerbation.18 Aid agencies must also consider and take steps to protect the safety of their personnel given their proximity to and involvement with the warring parties. In this way violent conflict reduces the efficacy of aid agencies and may prevent their operation altogether. Recently, Doctors Without Borders withdrew from Afghanistan citing safety concerns, and aid workers in Iraq are under constant threat.19 Indonesia and Sri Lanka present many of the same dangers to aid agencies and their employees. Coordination is necessary between these agencies and governments to ensure the safety of personnel, but there will always be a risk when operating in a conflict zone.

When a nation is engaged in a civil war or conflict, perceived injustices in aid allocation are a concern for affected populations and a possible tool of political mobilization. Aid agencies must recognize that, in areas with ongoing political conflicts, supplies and services may not reach populations. Aid supplies and funding can be misappropriated by the government or by rebel factions who may view aid workers as combatants.20 However, while working in a conflict zone presents significant challenges, humanitarian emergencies and the organizations that respond to them may be useful in conflict resolution processes.21 Indeed, with Indonesia's recent internal cooperation in the aftermath of the tsunami and Sri Lanka's past attempts at conflict resolution, this may be an avenue for international agencies to pursue.22

Aid in response to international emergencies is a complex phenomenon that includes independent organizations, governments, logistics, and a host of other factors. It can alleviate the suffering resulting from a major disaster and help those affected to recover economically and emotionally. While the international system has an opportunity for mobilizing new energies, the global community is beginning to focus on the natural resources and environment of affected nations, which are vital to the economic vitality of these nations. In many areas, coastal natural resources provide a backbone for local economies through fisheries, aquaculture and tourism. Devastation to these resources has significantly hurt the local economy and delayed the return to normal levels of activity.

Return to Top

Marine Fisheries

The effect of the Indian Ocean tsunami on marine fisheries varies geographically, and is as yet incomplete for many of the affected areas, in large part due to inaccessibility. Nevertheless, initial reports indicate that marine fishery and aquaculture harvests across affected nations have been severely depressed in some areas as a result of the tsunami. This may be due to stock mortality, but more often damage to fishing boats and gear, or other resources, is the cause. To avoid damage, fishermen may evade larger waves by going out to deep water, or mooring their boats with long ropes during small tsunamis.23 However, the recent tsunami was too large for these methods.

Priority has been placed on the location and retrieval of missing and dead persons. Yet a return to a semblance of normalcy is also necessary for psychological and economic reasons. Nevertheless, many fishermen have been unable or reluctant to return to the water, due to heavy losses or fearing unpredictable ocean conditions. In India, seafood markets dropped considerably because of public anxiousness of widespread disease and contamination, despite refutation by health officials.24

dead fish
Dead fish along Penang Island, Malaysia, December 27, 2004

Rapid fishery assessments in affected areas were conducted to determine the extent of the damage. Reports from the majority of the inshore fishers at Kuala Perlis, Malaysia, describe daily catches roughly half the size of those pre-tsunami.25 In many areas, poor harvests reflect the severe damage and destruction of vessels, gear, and facilities. For example, in Aceh Province, Indonesia, about 70% of the small-scale fishing fleet (e.g. motorized and manual canoes) was destroyed.26 Satellite imagery from Indonesia, particularly in Aceh and the Nias Islands, showed many coastal finfish and shellfish culture and hatchery facilities were completely destroyed, though inland areas were less severely affected.27 Indonesia aquaculture includes a range of marine finfish such as milkfish, seabass, mullet, crabs, and shrimps.28 Thailand lost roughly 80% of its infrastructure, including damage or loss of over 5,000 fishing vessels of varying sizes.29

tsunami damage satellite photo
Pre- and post-tsunami aquaculture sites in Banda Aceh, North Sumatra, Indonesia
Source: UNOSAT

Despite the vast destruction in many areas, some marine fisheries were spared. A recent report from the Maldives describes the mixed return of fishermen to work and their perceptions of fish catch post-tsunami. Fishermen in Laamu and Thaa Atolls have returned to sea, and are receiving similar income to pre-tsunami while noticing few ill effects. According to the report, levels of impact varied among atolls, with Laamu and Thaa highly affected, Baa Atoll only moderately and Malé only mildly so. Meanwhile, the bait fishery in Malé has been poor, but this may be due to seasonal fluctuations rather than the tsunami. A lack of fishery and catch data pre-tsunami limits the ability for a comprehensive assessment.30

Return to Top

Coral Reefs

Coral reefs, in addition to sandy beaches, are a major draw of tourism in many of the affected nations. By many accounts, initial estimates of coral reef damage were quite pessimistic.31 In the early days after the tsunami, the effects were suggested to have similar characteristics to those of hurricanes, cyclones, and other tropical storms that generate large coastal waves. Subsequent assessment efforts have shown that the impact of the December tsunami on coral reefs varies drastically across regions. In some cases, pessimism is founded, and large amounts of damage can be seen. Around the Similan Islands, off Thailand, a preliminary survey by the tourism and dive industries in Thailand shows 20% of the reefs have been destroyed, while roughly 60% were knocked over because of disturbance to supporting sands. If they are returned to upright positions, the coral may survive; if not, up to 40% of the reefs could be lost.32

In addition to the direct effect on coral from the tsunami waves, another source of impacts is from debris littering the coastal zone. Rapid assessment surveys were conducted in parts of Sri Lanka by the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society and The Nature Conservancy.33 The survey team found that everything from cars to concrete had washed out to sea and continue to break up coral reefs.34Debris must be cleared as a first step towards recovery and protection of coral reefs. These habitats are vital to the survival of these regions as they are some of the most productive and diverse ecosystems in the world.

Nevertheless, not all coral reefs are completely doomed, and the damage wrought by the tsunami is not homogeneous. In Sri Lanka, destruction was varied, and in some areas little to no fundamental damage was found during rapid assessments, though many dives revealed an increased amount of sedimentation or siltification.35 Similarly, a 17-day inspection of 124 reef sites on seven atolls in the Maldives reported little to no direct damage to coral reefs.36 Even so, coral in the Maldives is still slowly recovering from a massive bleaching in 1998, and the tsunami may have exacerbated the recuperation process.

The long-term effects of sediments kicked up by the tsunami are still unknown and monitoring will be needed. Small coral can be vulnerable to smothering by sediments, or the change in substrata may prevent future coral development. Another possibility may be a shift in the community composition of affected areas. A number of species of coral are resilient to sedimentation. These are often massive or platy-formed colonial corals with high skeletal plasticity and the ability to reject sediment. Also, finely branched species are less prone to ill effects from sediments because they provide only a small surface area on which to collect sediment.37 Collectively, a group of these coral species may compose "siltation assemblages", and such communities may be found more often in areas affected by sedimentation over the long term. Specifically, they are most often found in recently turbid water and level bottoms, normally in siliciclastic environments. The indirect environmental effects due to a shift in coral species assemblages are still unknown.

Return to Top

Natural Barriers

Despite the tsunami's many effects on human life, property, and infrastructure, in many areas the coastal zone was not completely destroyed. In large part, this is because natural barriers bore the brunt of the waves and are assumed to have absorbed or dissipated much of the tsunami's energy, protecting the coastal areas behind them. The survey team in Sri Lanka found that communities that left dunes and coral reefs intact suffered little damage, while areas with higher levels of ecological disturbance pre-tsunami suffered greater damage, such as breakage and physical disturbance from the tsunami.38 Undeveloped and protected areas showed phenomenal resilience and are regenerating quickly from the little damage they sustained. The protection that these barriers afford to coastal environments and populations underscores the importance of conserving and protecting these vital ecosystems.

In some ways, the tsunami provides a period for reflection on conservation and resource management. Careful planning of recovery efforts may focus efforts on creating sustainable practices that protect and support natural barriers sheltering the coastal zone. While humanitarian issues must be addressed through international aid, as discussed earlier, re-creating the intensive pre-tsunami coastal practices without environmental protections may ultimately be an unaffordable band-aid. M.A. Sanjayan, lead scientist at The Nature Conservancy and member of the Sri Lanka survey team, asks, "What is the point of rebuilding a scuba dive shop if the reef the dive shop owner depends on to attract tourist business is being degraded by both the aftermath of the tsunami and unchecked overuse and overexploitation?"39 Reconstruction of the fishing, farming, and tourism infrastructures should follow sustainable development models to fully protect the environment on which each of these economies depends.

Longer-term solutions may be provided by prioritizing sound environmental management through global aid that promotes ecologically sustainable redevelopment. Currently, sedimentation, runoff and effluents from agriculture and aquaculture, coastal development, and overfishing are major stressors to coral reefs and other natural barrier ecosystems. International aid during rebuilding efforts could focus on replanning land use, protecting fragile natural barrier ecosystems such as coral reefs, and rebuilding and upgrading coastal sewage and water treatment plants. Coordinated efforts could provide necessary humanitarian needs and revitalize the dampened local economies while significantly mitigating the ongoing ecosystem stressors.

In addition to local redevelopment efforts, we as a global society must prepare for natural disasters at this new level. This is especially important now as global economic interdependence increases and disasters in one region can have implications across the world. Preparation must include monitoring and detection technologies intricately coupled with communication and warning systems to prevent the loss of life and property in the future. Effective warning systems can save thousands of lives and greatly reduce the impact of disasters and the need for such a massive aid mobilization.

Return to Top

International Warning Systems

The existence of a successful tsunami warning system in the Pacific region has led to the suggestion that a South Asian--or even global--warning system should be developed. Currently, vulnerable regions in the United States, particularly the Pacific Northwest, utilize Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to integrate natural, socioeconomic, and disaster information in order to develop holistic mitigation and preparedness strategies.40 Communities that analyze risks and communicate warnings effectively are able to mitigate damages better than those that do not implement these precautions. Applying the underlying technology to South Asia or magnifying it to a global scale would require international coordination on a variety of levels. Politically, governments would have to come to a negotiated agreement regarding such a system, and its funding, staffing, and rules of operation. Practically, a warning system would require the international coordination of experts and the physical installation and maintenance of equipment.

There are numerous instances of the international community attempting to mitigate the effects of disasters through warning systems. The volatile Pacific region has tsunami, earthquake, and volcanic monitoring, while the African community has moved to prevent and manage its own natural and human disasters.41 However, the development and implementation of such a system requires more than planning and technical expertise; it requires a political commitment from national and international leadership and the development of specific policies relating to the system and its operations.42 Global public sentiment seems to be pushing politicians toward the development of such a system, but if the suggestion is not acted upon immediately, while public interest is strong, the project may be caught up in the quagmire of international politics. The funding for an international warning system would require a financial outlay from many developing nations in order to combat an extremely rare natural disaster. It is possible that the cost could become prohibitive to these nations unless additional funding sources are located. The development of warning systems lags behind funding of aid agencies. Charities respond to an immediate human need for disaster relief,43 while long-term planning tends to involve government agencies and meetings.

An important priority for the international community is the identification of areas most at risk from flooding by a tsunami. Production of inundation maps will enable long-term planning for rebuilding and siting of new communities that would be at low risk and for required coastal defense works. Inundation maps are created by running earthquake, landslide, and volcanic eruption simulations to see whether tsunamis are produced; the combination of these results with detailed topographic measurements of the sea bed and coastal zones will indicate degree of inland penetration and flooding. However, such topographic maps are currently nonexistent for the Indian Ocean region, and detailed sea bed imaging is yet to be carried out.

International focus and cooperation is centered on tsunami warning systems, both to detect tsunamis and to issue warnings to prevent loss of life. These two separate components involve wave detection sensors and a communications infrastructure to issue the warning for evacuation of coastal areas. Both these components have associated problems: tsunamis in deep water have a very low wave height and thus require a network of sensors for detection, while setting up the required local infrastructure for timely and accurate warnings can also be problematic. High frequency (HF) radar has been used since the late 1970s, and originally had a very short range of sight. Newer generations of technology can sense further, potentially increasing their warning utility.44 Warning systems rely on the fact that seismic waves travel much faster than a tsunami in open water, typically at 5 km/s compared with the tsunami wave at between 500 and 1,000 km/h in open water. This means that earthquake detection is almost instantaneous and a tsunami risk can be rapidly calculated, a forecast made, and a timely warning issued.

Return to Top

Available Infrastructure

Some infrastructure for an international tsunami warning system is already available. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC), set up in 1946 after the damage resulting from the Hawaiian Islands tsunami, has a network of 24 seismic stations throughout the Pacific region, which monitor earthquake activity. These measurements are used to help to calculate the tsunami risk along the Pacific coastline.45 Indeed, after the December 2004 earthquake, despite an initial underestimate of its magnitude, the PTWC managed to identify a real tsunami risk. Unfortunately, it was unable to communicate its findings to the Indian Ocean region because no suitable infrastructure existed. Nevertheless, warnings issued along the East African coast, particularly in Kenya, meant only a small number of people lost their lives.

Progress towards international infrastructure is being made. A United Nations conference held in January 2005 in Kobe, Japan, decided that, as an initial step towards an International Early Warning Program, the UN should establish an Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System.46 Local warning systems, relying on seismic data from nearby earthquakes to indicate a likely potential tsunami threat, could issue a general warning, in the form of sirens and use of public address systems, in possibly less than 15 minutes. The international warning system at the PTWC uses seismic data as a starting point and then uses oceanographic data to determine tsunami threat. Tide gauges also help to establish whether a tsunami wave has formed. The PTWC is then ready to forecast the future path of such a tsunami, and warnings can be issued to the entire Pacific basin if necessary. This global system also results in fewer false alarms, which in turn means that warnings are acted upon promptly.

Return to Top

Project DART

In 1995, as part of the U.S. National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program (NTHMP), deep-ocean tsunameters were developed by Project DART (Deep-Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis) at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL).

Project DART is a prototype tsunami forecasting system package that combines real-time tsunameter network measurements with state-of-the-art numerical modeling technology developed to provide site-specific predictions of tsunami impact on the coast. The first operational version of this forecast system package will be implemented this year at NOAA's two Tsunami Warning Centers (PTWC and West Coast & Alaska Tsunami Warning Center, WCATWC) to help address two important goals of the NOAA-led National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program:
  1. To reduce the loss of life and property in U.S. coastal communities.
  2. To reduce false alarms and the resulting high economic cost of unnecessary evacuations, physical risk to the population during evacuation, as well as loss of public confidence in the warning system.47

In 2001 six DART buoys were present in the Pacific Ocean and, beginning in 2005, plans were announced for an additional 32 to be operational by mid-2007. Each station has a bottom pressure recorder on the sea floor. This measures the changing pressure on the sea bed caused by the tsunami peak and trough as it passes overhead. An algorithm gives predicted water height and runs a comparison of all new data.48 This pressure gauge is sensitive to changes in wave height of less than 5mm and is deployed at depths of 6,000m. Findings are transmitted to a surface buoy by sonar, which then transmits to PTWC via the Global Earth Observation System (GOES) satellite system.49 In tsunami response mode data is sampled every minute and will include the preceding two hours of data, with this detail continuing until three hours of undisturbed water height.

Pacific Tsunami Warning System
1. Seismic observatories in the region detect an earthquake and send data to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii.
2. If the earthquake is in the Pacific basin and above 7.5 on Richter scale, an initial "Tsunami watch" alert is sent out.
3. Data from monitoring stations deep on the seabed near the earthquake's epicentre is checked for signs of a tsunami.
4. If a tsunami is detected, full warnings are sent out via national systems which have been set up in several countries.

Return to Top

2004 Tsunami Observations

During the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, data from four radar satellites recorded the heights of tsunami waves. US-French satellites TOPEX/Poseidon and Jason-1 passed over the Bay of Bengal two hours after the earthquake occurred. That is roughly when the tsunami's leading edge hit Sri Lanka and India. For eight minutes, radar measured the sea level along a 3000-kilometer-long track of ocean that included the first two wavefronts produced by the main earthquake, 500 to 800 kilometers apart. The waves had a height of 50 centimeters in the open ocean, only reaching full height on entering shallow coastal waters via a concentration of wavelength. In contrast, wind-driven waves typically reach 10 meters in open-ocean while the short wavelength limits the height increase in coastal waters.50

Satellite observations of tsunamis are useful, but have limitations as warning systems. Measurements will help calibrate and refine tsunami models, as will eye witness accounts of the height of waves on the shore. Better models will enable increased accuracy of tsunami forecasting and the ensuing damage. However, processing satellite data takes too long to effectively participate in tsunami warning systems and their presence over the Bay of Bengal in December was pure chance.51 Nevertheless, the detailed images from spy satellites deployed by the US Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and also from commercial satellites, were useful in showing the transport infrastructure (roads, bridges, airstrips, seaports etc.), whether it was suitable for relief operations, and how much had survived the tsunami. This is the sort of information that is valuable to relief aid agencies.52

Return to Top

Warning Communication

Tsunami prediction, detection, and observation form only half of a good warning system. The other half involves effective communication to enable adequate warning to the populations of the potentially affected areas. All tsunami warning systems feature multiple lines of communications, including e-mail, fax, radio, telex and sirens. These systems enable warnings to be sent to the emergency services, armed forces, and civilian populations.53 Systems need to be set in place to ensure that such messages, when received, are acted upon. But no warnings are effective without adequate education of the people in affected areas. Loss of life was greatest where, when the sea bed was exposed before the tsunami struck, people set out towards the impending disaster to harvest exposed fish and other sea food. Adequate arrangements were also lacking for the weak, children, the old and the slow--many schools and homes were sited on or near the shore. Coastal defense works, such as tree planting, were not widespread.

Additionally, tsunami preparedness is important to be able to respond quickly to warnings. A few public awareness programs exist, which may act as models for an international preparedness system. TsunamiReady is a US National Weather Service (NWS) initiative that promotes active preparation with collaboration among federal, state and local emergency management agencies, the public, and the NWS tsunami warning system for coastal communities at risk of a tsunami.54 The initiative includes a number of actions designed to increase community preparedness. These activities include community awareness, assembling a Tsunami Hazard Plan, establishing an Emergency Operations Center, and providing multiple communications and warnings via radio, sirens, and other local media. Efforts to apply this type of communication network to an international scale will need to be significant.

International organizations recognize the need for clear and efficient communication of tsunami warnings. An international coordination meeting was held at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France this March to determine communication needs.

The Meeting was attended by nearly 300 participants from 21 countries in the Indian Ocean region, 25 other IOC Member States, 24 organizations, and 16 observers. The Meeting ensured that Indian Ocean Member States are fully informed, at the technical level, on tsunami warning and mitigation programmes at the national, regional and global levels. The Meeting adopted a communiqué that provides guidance to all partners regarding the required actions that will lead towards the establishment of an Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System. The Meeting also recommended the establishment of an Intergovernmental Coordination Group for the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (ICG/IOTWS) and drafted Terms of Reference for the Group.55
International Coordination Meeting for the Development of a Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System for the Indian Ocean within a Global Framework UNESCO Headquarters, France, 3-8 March 2005 IOC Workshop Report No 196, UNESCO 2005

Communications have been important not only for warning services, but also in picking up the pieces of the social aftermath. Immediately after the Indian Ocean disaster, both the BBC and Sky56 made a large portion of their websites available for relatives to post details of missing persons and for survivors to post their details, as did the scrolling news ticker tape on the Sky News TV screen. Both these websites have extremely large servers associated with hosting large public access websites, and so have the server resources available for provision of this type of service. After providing a successful service these sites are now closed. The IndoTsunami website, set up on Tuesday 10 February 2005, is dedicated to follow-up activities in the countries devastated by the tsunami and will report on national, regional, and international action to establish tsunami warning and mitigation systems in the Indian Ocean and other ocean basins.57

Return to Top


The December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami has had lasting effects, varying geographically, on the social, economic, and environmental landscape. Further, it has brought several features of the international system into focus. First, international aid agencies may be able to improve logistics, allocation, and coordination in order to increase efficiency. Second, aid agencies face unique difficulties when dealing with governments and other organizations. Third, these difficulties may be exacerbated in conflict zones.

While the international system has an opportunity for mobilizing new energies, the global community is also examining the effects of the tsunami on natural resources and the environment. Marine fisheries in many areas have been depressed due to destruction of fishing vessels, gear, and infrastructure, and many aquaculture facilities have been destroyed, though damage varies geographically. Similarly, many coral reefs, an important spot for biodiversity and attractor for tourism, have been significantly affected, often by debris. A more important concern for coral may be the emphasis placed in coastal zone management. Damage from the tsunami was noticeably less in undeveloped areas or where natural barriers were left intact, protecting inner coastal zones. As rebuilding efforts ensure, prioritizing conservation of these natural barriers may help to mitigate effects of future natural disasters.

Another method of decreasing the effects on human life and property in the future is the coordination of international tsunami detection and warning systems. The creation of this type of system requires a concerted political will, a dedicated group of scientific experts, and a large network of infrastructure. Resources are available in the Pacific and may be applied to the Indian Ocean in a global network. Project DART and other programs use earthquake monitoring, pressure gauges, buoys, sonar, satellites, and complex models to gather and relay data for analysis. Once a tsunami has been detected, warnings must be communicated via multiple methods to areas of concern. Public preparedness for natural disasters, including tsunamis, is important for high-risk communities. Initiatives such as TsunamiReady may be applied elsewhere to provide community awareness. Once disaster has struck, communications become important social links, particularly providing information on missing persons and channeling relief to where it is most needed.


An aftershock earthquake of 8.7 on the Richter scale occurred on 28 March 2005.58 The epicenter was 19 miles under the sea bed 125 miles west northwest of Sibolga in Sumatra, between the islands of Nias and Simuelue, and some 200 miles further south on the same faultline as the December 2004 earthquake (9 on the Richter scale). However, this time only a small tidal surge in the Cocos Islands, due south of the epicenter, was felt, and no tsunami damage was reported.59 Rapid environmental assessments have not noted significant damage due to this latest earthquake. A comprehensive international tsunami warning system has not yet been established in this region. Thousands fled to higher ground fearing the worst when warnings from USA's NOAA were given. This latest earthquake may help spur international coordination efforts towards aid and warning systems and further emphasize the need for evaluating priorities in coastal resource management and conservation.

Return to Top

© Copyright 2005, All Rights Reserved, CSA