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10 Years After: Revisiting the Boxing Day tsunami

Aceh © RNW



Environment News

Revisiting Aceh and the Thai island of Koh Lanta 

Surfersvillage Global Surf News, 26 December, 2014 - Today marks the 10th anniversary of one of the deadliest natural disasters in world history: a tsunami, triggered by a massive earthquake off the Indonesian coast, leaving more than 230,000 people dead in 14 countries and causing about $10 billion in damage. Countries from Indonesia to Indiato Africa's east coast were hit, leaving shocking scenes of death and destruction. Here is one person’s story as reported by the Financial Times:

When the sea suddenly receded on Boxing Day 2004 after one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded, Sofyan Umar ran down the beach to catch marooned fish like thousands of others across the conflict-ridden Indonesian province of Aceh.

Minutes later he and his family were swept up by the biggest wave they had ever seen, the wave that changed everything. “It was terrifying,” says Mr Umar who lives in the coastal city of Meulaboh, which was ground zero for the tsunami. “For eight hours I had no idea if I was on land or sea.”

Clinging to flotsam and dodging cars, fishing boats and other debris, he managed to survive the 2004 Asian tsunami. But he could not save his wife, who was washed out to sea and never found.

Thailand © Jen Cursist


The tsunami surged up to 6km inland in Indonesia’s northernmost province, wiping out 120,000 houses and killing 170,000 people. Outside Indonesia, 60,000 died in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and beyond. The 9.2 magnitude quake, which unleashed 1,500 times as much energy as the Hiroshima atomic bomb, and the waves of up to 40m that followed made this one of the world’s most destructive natural disasters.

But for Mr Umar and 4m other Acehnese, there was a silver lining. In the most religiously fervent province of the world’s biggest Muslim-majority nation, many even describe the tsunami as a “gift from god”.

The unimaginable scale of the devastation pushed the Indonesian government and separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) to end a 30-year conflict that had cost thousands of lives, hamstrung the province’s once-thriving economy and left many in poverty. They signed a peace deal in August 2005.

“The violence only stopped because of the tsunami and that has allowed our economy to start growing again,” says Mr Umar, 56, who remarried to a woman who lost her husband in the disaster, one of many such “tsunami weddings”. He works as a foreman at Meulaboh port, which was built with Singaporean aid, supervising the loading of coal from a recently established mine. The 1,000 people who work at the mine would not have jobs if the tsunami had not ended the fighting.



After the peace came $7.2bn of relief funds from international donors and the Indonesian government in one of the world’s biggest and most complex disaster reconstruction efforts.

After the tsunami, the Indonesian government, donors, non-governmental organisations, and individuals contributed roughly US$7 billion in aid for Aceh and the government established a high-level bureau based in Aceh to coordinate recovery. What did these resources buy? The answer matters for anyone who wonders whether assistance can make a lasting difference.

In the first year, progress in Aceh was slow and frustration was high. But 10 years on, a very different picture has emerged. On many dimensions, life has returned to something that feels normal. It's a recovery in which Aceh, the Indonesian nation and the world should take pride - but it did not come easily or cheaply.

We led an international team of scientists for the Study of the Tsunami Aftermath and Recovery. Beginning five months after the disaster, we searched for 32,320 people first interviewed as part of a 2004 survey in nearly 500 communities along the Indonesian coast. Of the 30,000 survivors, we interviewed 96 per cent in follow-up surveys between 2005 and 2010 to measure the immediate impact of the tsunami and subsequent recovery in badly damaged communities in comparison to those not directly affected.

The tsunami was devastating, tearing apart networks of family, friends and neighbours. In some communities, 80 per cent of the population perished. In the immediate aftermath, survivors focused on finding food, water and shelter. Within four months, nearly two-thirds of those in severely damaged communities had moved away.

It took time to establish property rights and assemble construction materials, but within five years these individuals lived in family-owned homes at the same rates as before the tsunami. They formed new families through marriage. In communities where tsunami mortality was higher, we saw a greater fertility increase in the five years after the tsunami. Recently married couples had their first babies and mothers whose children had been killed gave birth again.


After the tsunami – a Thai fishing village, 10 years on

It’s been almost 10 years since the Indian Ocean tsunami hit the Thai island of Koh Lanta, on 26 December 2004.

Talking about it brings tears to Ampai Madsaron’s eyes. “It’s always at the back of my mind,” she says, “like a scar that doesn’t heal.” 

It is early in the morning, and Ampai’s husband Yunui is out fishing. She sits on a woven mat on the porch with her three sons Tanya, 18, Noppadol, 12, and Nattaporn, 9. Behind them, life jackets and fishing nets hang to dry. Ampai wears a black headscarf, embroidered with starbursts of blue, white and yellow. Koh Lanta is a predominantly Muslim area.

The Madsaron home is a wooden hut built on stilts over the sea to allow easy access for the family’s fishing boat. They earn around 1,000 baht (US$30) for a good day’s catch of fish, squid or crabs.

Their poor fishing village is totally dependent on the ocean – and it was hit hard by the tsunami. “I was on the hillside above the house when the sea rushed out and I saw the wave coming,” she remembers. “I had seen a Japanese documentary about tsunamis on TV, so I knew straight away what was happening. Some of my neighbours just stood there staring at the wave, but I shouted at them to run up the hill.”

Ampai counted seven waves in total. “The first two passed by offshore, then the third one hit our house,” she recalls. “The water came back down carrying boulders, and, by the end, our home was completely destroyed. There are around 100 houses in our village, and almost half of them were destroyed, along with many fishing boats.”

Everyone in Ampai’s village survived, thanks in part to her warning. “I was very afraid and desperately worried about my children,” she continues. “I was carrying my nephew, and he was crying as we ran up the hill. I told my neighbours not to worry about their homes or possessions – we just have to save our lives.”

After the tsunami, the family stayed at an evacuation centre in the local school for a month, then moved to Ampai’s mother’s house further uphill while they rebuilt their own home. “It was a difficult time,” Ampai says. “We didn’t have enough rice to eat, and the shops raised their prices. People didn’t want to fish or eat seafood because there were still bodies in the sea.”

Noppadol and Nattaporn examine one of the fish their father has caught.
Ampai became a UNICEF focal point for her community. She was already a health volunteer with the nearby hospital and leader of the local women’s group. She worked with UNICEF to distribute food and supplies in her village, making sure that everybody got a fair share.

She also set up a business with other women drying and selling fish, with 30,000 baht seed funding from UNICEF. Within a few years, Ampai had increased the funds to 300,000 baht. “We used the seed funding to buy equipment like knives, wooden buckets and ice coolers, as well as salt and extra fish when we couldn’t catch enough,” she says. “UNICEF built a workshop where we could cut and dry the fish. We used some of the profits to support elderly and vulnerable villagers.”

A few months after the tsunami, the local school reopened. UNICEF restocked the library with schoolbooks and provided a motorcycle for the teachers so they could make home visits to remote families, particularly if their children didn’t show up for class. Ten years later, both the schoolbooks and motorbike are still in use.

For Ampai, her work with UNICEF was part of her usual approach to life and her community. “I like to help other people,” she explains. “It’s a great feeling when the whole village works together. I am grateful to UNICEF for helping me to have a good life, and for what they have done for our community.”

Sources (in order): Financial Times, South China Morning Post, Unicef

Aceh, Thailand, India, Tsunami, 2004, Boxing Day Tsunami, Environment

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