Global academic community rallies around relief effort

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

US and Australian institutions offer expert aid as hard-hit Sri Lankan and Indonesian universities struggle on

Hundreds of academics worldwide are engaged in the international relief effort in the countries affected by the tsunami as universities count the costs to their own communities of missing faculty and students.

In Indonesia, academic casualties include Irwandi Yusuf, a lecturer at Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh. Yusuf, who was imprisoned after translating an interview with a regional Free Aceh Movement leader, died along with 280 other prisoners and six guards when the city's prison was engulfed in a torrent of churning water and debris.

Damien Kingsbury, senior lecturer in international development studies at Deakin University in Melbourne, says most education institutions in Aceh were near the coast and exposed to the tsunami. Although the province has a number of universities, only Syiah Kuala was internationally recognised. It is to reopen on February 1, but more than 90 of its staff are dead and 79 are still missing. Hundreds of students are unaccounted for, and those that survived have nowhere to live.

Reconstruction of the university will be more difficult than for the rest of the province's education sector. Kingsbury says: "The loss of the library is critical because of the cost of replacing books".

After the Boxing Day earthquake, the World Health Organisation activated its Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, which includes several American and Australian universities. At the University of Denver's International Center for Disaster Psychology, Elaine Hanson, the academic director, is raising money to travel to Jakarta to help with recovery efforts. She says survivors are at long-term risk of suicide, alcoholism, child abuse and molestation.

Another Denver professor, Patrick Sherry, an expert on transport, was in Jakarta with two doctoral students the week before the tsunami hit. He and his students have been invited to return to help restore transport services in areas where roads and infrastructure have been washed out.

A team from the National Science Foundation's Tsunami Research Group and the US Geological Survey, led by Philip Liu, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University, will examine the impact points in Sri Lanka and assess structural damage.

The Florida Institute of Technology is organising a donation drive to help Sri Lankan-born student Anushan Weerasooriya, whose parents died in the disaster. He no longer has the means to return to study in the US.

Several employees of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore are involved in Sri Lankan relief efforts, including a physician specialising in emergency medicine and three nurses from the university's affiliated hospital. Three Johns Hopkins employees of Sri Lankan descent have also travelled to the affected area.

At Yale University, a student organisation producing a college-wide Winter Arts Festival has arranged for the proceeds to go to Disaster Relief Sri Lanka. In Pittsburgh, universities joined with five local television stations to present a fundraising telethon that raised nearly $1 million (£534,000) for disaster relief.

In Sri Lanka, 31 students are now confirmed dead with 123 missing and many of the survivors in refugee camps; 16 staff members are dead and 13 missing. Property damage is estimated at Rs72.4 million (£400,000).

Ranjit Mendis, the chairman of Sri Lanka's University Grants Commission, says South Eastern University is uninhabitable because of flooding and Eastern University is "a massive refugee camp".

"Students in their thousands have lost their homes. Worse, many have lost parents and are without the finances to continue their education," Mendis says.

Affected Sri Lankan universities were beginning to reopen this week - with only South Eastern's resumption of classes postponed indefinitely.

Examinations were being rescheduled.

The UGC has allocated Rs350,000 to seven universities for initial damage assessment to cultural and other monuments in cooperation with the International Council on Monuments and Sites. Mendis has appealed for donations either directly to the UGC or to the President's Fund for Disaster Relief.

Reporting by Jon Marcus and Geoff Maslen

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