Murals on the wall inside a girls' boarding school in Meulaboh depict scenes of Singapore. The school was rebuilt with the Republic's help. - Straits Times Photo: Desmond Lim
Call it the day large parts of the world got to know the meaning of force majeure as a phrase and not a contract clause. As dawn broke on Dec 26, 2004, along the ocean floor below Indonesia’s Sumatra island, deep, powerful impulses that had built up over centuries were convulsing the ground with a magnitude of 9.1 on the Richter scale.
Shaken by the tremors, the dark, unfathomed caves of ocean released energy more than 25,000 times the bomb that flattened Hiroshima
Waves are meant to ripple; the swells from this undersea quake radiated. And they did so at jet speed, unseen to human eyes as they snaked treacherously below the waterline. Only close to land, as the waters got shallow and its belly began rubbing up on rocks and sand did this many-headed sub-marine force rear its terrifying mane, crashing into the coastline with waves taller than palm trees, sweeping ships ashore, dragging tenements inland. Then, the tide fell upon its back and returned to its ocean home, leaving death and devastation in its wake.
In Indonesia, the first settlements received the tsunami within minutes. Thailand felt it soon after. So too the Andaman and Nicobar chain of islands, India’s toehold in South-east Asia.
Mainland India and Sri Lanka got the waves a couple of hours later as fishermen returned after a night’s work and tourists sniffed the salty air on beaches yet to be warmed by the sun. Even distant African coastal states like Yemen and Kenya would feel the tsunami’s impact hours later.
Protruding land masses protected countries like Singapore and Australia, but those in its direct line suffered greatly, none more than Indonesia itself, where more than 166,000 died. Sri Lanka, also directly in line, was next with more than 35,000 deaths while mainland India’s east coast reported more than 16,000.
The final death count would top 226,000 across the 13 nations in Asia and Africa where the tsunami – so sweet-sounding that several children have since been named Tsunami – slammed ashore.
More than 1.7 million people were displaced, among them a pair of Acehnese kids found drifting on a piece of wood 400km from their home in Meulaboh.
The economic damage?
To the credit of the world, the humanitarian response was unprecedented, and impressive.
Some US$14 billion in aid flowed to the affected nations, chiefly Indonesia. As always, the United States was the most generous – and capable – flying 817 relief missions to deliver 5,500 tonnes of relief supplies and deploying 25 naval vessels to the region, including the Mercy, a 1,000-bed hospital ship. At the peak of the relief effort, 16,000 US personnel were involved.
Tiny Singapore flew in 1,500 military personnel, its largest ever deployment overseas for a humanitarian cause. The aptly named RSS Endurance, one of three Singapore landing ship tanks deployed to Aceh, was home to 500 soldiers, sailors and airmen.
Mankind has suffered stupendous natural calamities throughout its existence.
The ancient Aryans, for instance, aware of the power of nature, prayed to the gods of wind, fire – and to Varuna, god of the waters.
Such propitiation was meant to stave off misfortune. But, in the last quarter of the 20th century, as the world realised that natural disasters were inevitable, it began to think of linking disaster relief to the development process.
Not surprisingly, it needed a superb communicator and policy buff like former US President Bill Clinton to crystallise our thoughts around what we needed to do.
A fishing boat stranded on the main road of Unawatuna Beach in the south coast of Sri Lanka on Dec 28, 2004. -Photo: Straits Times File
“We need to make sure that this recovery process accomplishes more than just restoring what was there before,” Clinton said in his capacity as UN special envoy for tsunami recovery.
Those words have now been adapted as the slogan – Build Back Better.
At its simplest, Build Back Better is like putting in fibre optic cable in places where copper wires used to form the backbone of a telephone network before the disruption. But it means more. For instance, building resilience against future disasters and, in some cases, even bringing an end to enduring civil conflicts such as ethnic strife and insurgencies.
A decade later, therefore, even as the memories do not fade, many scars are healing. And nothing underscores this more than Aceh, which suffered the maximum damage in the tsunami.
Among the poorest of Indonesia’s provinces, Aceh had been further weakened by separatist violence that may have taken as many as 25,000 lives over three decades of conflict.
Jakarta, mindful of its experience in East Timor, had imposed martial law in the area in 2003 and, despite Aceh’s desperation, had banned most international aid agencies from operating in the area. The tsunami would claim 120,000 lives – five times the number that was claimed by the insurgency – and wreck the local economy.
Then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s farsighted response to the disaster was to throw Aceh open to the international community’s relief effort. And the world responded. More than 200 relief organisations, including foreign military forces, arrived to help, and fully a third of the US$14 billion committed to the global tsunami response went to Aceh.
The shock of the disaster had a salutary effect. By August 2005, the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement had signed a deal to end the conflict.
“The parties are deeply convinced that only the peaceful settlement of the conflict will enable the rebuilding of Aceh after the tsunami disaster to progress and succeed,” said a joint statement signed by the Indonesian government and Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, the local name for the movement.
In Sri Lanka, where the tsunami hit the Sinhala-dominated southern part of the island, the biggest private donor was Raj Rajaratnam, a billionaire hedge fund manager on Wall Street who is of Tamil ethnicity. Rajaratnam had earlier been accused of covertly funding the separatist Tamil Tigers in their war against the Sinhala-dominated state.
At the Thai watering hole of Phuket, one of the most popular destinations in South-east Asia, the bounce back took less than two years. Indeed, Phi Phi islands off Phuket, where the Leonardo Di Caprio-starrer The Beach was partially shot, enjoyed one of its most successful tourist season the very next year. Only the Japanese, whose language gave the world the word tsunami, have dropped off a bit, tourism officials say.
Some, like India, also saw opportunity in the challenge.
Even as it mounted a massive relief effort along the coastline in southern Tamil Nadu state, and in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, New Delhi subtly projected its rising power. First, it declined all external aid. Then it sent its own military to assist the civilian administrations tackling the relief effort in neighbouring nations like Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
In Car Nicobar, road connectivity across the island has improved. India’s military, which lost the Car Nicobar air base to the tsunami, has used the build back momentum to set up new military facilities and listening posts along the Andaman chain.
Not that it was all about projecting power.
On the Indian mainland, thanks to improved facilities after the rebuilding, girls who routinely dropped out of school on reaching puberty, stay in school longer. Older, illiterate women have learned to sign their own names.
Ten years after the disaster, Asia can look back and say the response brought out the best in terms of fellow feeling and a collective determination to fight back.
The true test of human intelligence of course is how we use experience to limit future setbacks. If so, we will know soon. The next challenge may not be too long coming.
Tourists have returned to the once tsunami-ravaged Phi Phi islands in Thailand. - Photo: Phuket Gazette
Scientists at the Earth Observatory in Singapore say Sumatra’s western coast is sitting smack over a ticking geological time bomb that could trigger a quake as powerful as 8.8 on the Richter.
To an extent, we are prepared – for what we have endured. Asia has mechanisms now to warn of tsunamis. The Changi Regional Humanitarian and Disaster Relief Coordination Centre set up earlier this year can activate a response team to reach Ground Zero within 48 hours.
Still, for those close to the epicentre of a quake, these warning systems may not be of much use. At the end of the day, especially for those who live by the sea, strong legs and higher ground are often the only reliable means of survival against an angry tide. There is only so much science can do.
How the tsunami swept across the Indian Ocean and washed over Asia and Africa on Dec 26, 2004, leaving hundreds of thousands dead.
Here is the look at the science behind the tsunami, how it unfolded and the immense loss of life and destruction it caused across 13 countries in two continents.