And a time to heal...

January 14, 2005

Over four pages, The Times Higher explores the long-term impact of the Indian Ocean tsunami and examines what can be learnt from past natural disasters

Can nature's wave of destruction help to unite an island split by two decades of conflict? It could happen in Sri Lanka - if it receives the aid it requires, argues Richard Boyle

Over the centuries, the shape of Sri Lanka has been likened to a pearl, a mango and, most poignantly right now, a teardrop. A staggering 70 per cent of Sri Lanka's 1,300km of coastline was hit by the recent tsunami. The wave was indiscriminate, sweeping away the Muslim and Tamil communities of the north and east as well as the Sinhalese communities of the south and southwest, killing 35,000 and injuring 16,000. Furthermore, 850,000 people were displaced, adding to the 350,000 unsettled by civil conflict. The damage is estimated to be $1.3 billion.

With the two-year-old peace process between the Tamil Tigers and the Government stalled, many Sri Lankans have begun to hope that the disaster will unite the country and lead to reconciliation. But such unity in adversity can come only if relief and reconstruction are perceived to be equitable in north and south. The link between disaster response, reconstruction and peace-building must be understood, the need for trust recognised. It is tantalising to think that the tsunami, which killed half the number lost in two decades of conflict, could bring about peace. Sri Lankans, with a little help from their friends, must make it happen.

The tsunami has left behind many heart-rending statistics. Perhaps the most distressing is that children account for more than one third of the dead, upwards of 15,000 of them. The yet-to-be-quantified numbers who have been orphaned, injured and traumatised are no doubt substantial, too.

Sri Lanka already has a generation of youngsters orphaned and traumatised - in the north by civil war and in the south by insurgency. It is estimated that 30 per cent of children affected by the tsunami will suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. Adults will need counselling, too. With funding, it is hoped that the disaster will bring about improvements to the country's social services.

It is too early for a comprehensive environmental impact assessment of the tsunami. However, it is evident that a large percentage of Sri Lanka's biodiverse and sensitive marine and coastal ecosystems, such as coral reefs, estuaries, lagoons, sea-grass beds and marshes, has suffered significant damage. Coral reefs, for instance, have been shattered, exposed to the air (which can kill them) and blanketed by mud and sand.

The enormous clearing-up operation just begun is a daunting prospect. In particular, the disposal of perhaps several million tons of rubble, wood and hazardous material must be planned to avoid long-term environmental impact. Already there are reports of debris being bulldozed into the sea.

Over recent decades, there has been much haphazard development along the southwest coast. Reconstruction is seen as a chance for renewal, but it is to be banned within 300m of the coast. This regulation will affect the lives of many, especially fishermen.

Efforts to minimise the destruction of future tsunamis must centre on the mangrove, which can break down waves up to 4m high. In the nearby Indian state of Tamil Nadu, areas with dense mangrove suffered significantly fewer casualties and damage. Mangrove cultivation is encouraged in Thailand and Vietnam to mitigate the effects of typhoons. In Sri Lanka, mangrove is perceived to be of no value and has been cleared to make way for prawn farms and tourist resorts. In the future, however, there will be greater appreciation of this humble plant.

As with other tsunami-hit countries, it is the tourism and fishing industries that have been most affected in Sri Lanka. After two years of peace, tourism picked up significantly in 2004, with more than 500,000 visitors. Many hotels felt confident enough to refurbish. The tsunami changed all that.

Sixty-one hotels were damaged or de-stroyed, which left 4,000 of Sri Lanka's 14,000 hotel rooms unusable. It is the small guesthouses that suffered the greatest destruction, but they had no insurance and are therefore more likely to remain closed. This may change the character of tourism on the coast, for the budget traveller will be less well served.

Tourism promotion in the short term will concentrate on Sri Lanka's archaeological sites and the hill country. In the long term, however, this may lead to more balanced tourism with less pressure on the overstrained southwest coast.

As for the fishing industry, many thousands of fishermen have been killed, 80 per cent of the 30,000-boat fishing fleet destroyed, and 10 out of 12 major fishing harbours damaged. Rebuilding the fleet, replenishing fish stocks and training new fishermen will take time, much longer than it will take to overcome the aversion to fish consumption that has developed because people do not wish to eat fish that may have fed on the bodies that were washed out to sea. Given the prominence of fish in the national diet, the threat of widespread protein deficiency will have to be countered by increasing the cultivation of legumes such as soybean, cow pea and groundnut.

One of the island's chronicles speaks of an ancient inundation that submerged many coastal villages. Contemporary Sri Lankans, though, demonstrate complacency towards the natural disasters that affect much of the region. Apart from a cyclone every few decades, the country is blessed.

The islanders have always considered the sea to be benign. These attitudes will change.

Richard Boyle is a British-born film-maker living in Sri Lanka.

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