2004 tsunami

The big wave

Fifteen years after the devastating tsunami of Boxing Day 2004, Southeast Asia Globe looks back at the tragedy, examining its lasting impact and how the region is addressing the issue of disaster preparedness today.

WHY WE WROTE THIS: Because 15 years on from the 2004 tsunami, communities are still vulnerable to natural disasters

December 26, 2019
The big wave
A mosque stands alone among the devastated area on the west coast Aceh province, which many took as a religious sign, on 19 January 2005. Photo: Adek Berry/AFP

It has been fifteen years since an earthquake and accompanying tsunami ripped through the coastlines of the Indian Ocean.

Early on 26 December 2004, just one minute before 8am Indonesian time, a disaster began that would devastate the region. First, a powerful undersea earthquake – measuring 9.1 on the Richter scale, the fourth strongest since 1900 – occurred where the Indian and Australian tectonic plates meet off the west coast of Indonesia, as a heavy ocean plate slipped under a lighter continental plate. The lighter plate, situated near Sumatra Island, jolted some 40 feet upward with incredible force. 

This movement of the earth triggered a massive tsunami that struck fourteen countries around the Indian Ocean, with Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand hit hardest. 

Banda Aceh, a city in Indonesia, was struck first after 20 minutes by a wall of water measuring as high as 100 feet. The water was so powerful that a 2,600-tonne ship was washed 8km into the city, a site that now doubles as a park and a memorial. It hit the east African coast last over seven hours later, with wave heights of under a metre.

This wasn’t the only wave; tsunamis are usually one of a series called a wave train, that do not necessarily de-escalate in danger. And so as confusion and panic mounted, the damage continued.

The 2004 tsunami hit the Indonesian city of Banda Aceh, which was the closest to the epicentre of the preceding earthquake, within 20 to 30 minutes.

With nearly 230,000 people killed, the tsunami was the deadliest in human history, as well as one of the deadliest natural disasters in memory. Ask those impacted and their memories are largely of an outsized trauma that is difficult to comprehend without firsthand experience.  Even the photos, while jarring, show a devastation that feels somewhat removed from the true scale of the disaster. 

In the ensuing days, more than $6.25 billion in aid poured into the countries affected. According to reporting from The Guardian, “Aid agencies [said] the response was unlike any they had seen before, particularly in the scale of donations from the public,” and it quickly became known as one of the most generous public responses in history. 

The biggest donor was Japan, which contributed more than $500 million for the tsunami response. As the most severely hit, Indonesia and Sri Lanka received by far the most aid.

Multiple charities were also started in the wake of the events. For instance, Andy Chaggar – a Brit who lost his partner Nova Mills in the tsunami when they were staying in Thailand’s Khao Lak – co-founded International Disaster Volunteers in 2008. 

Women pray during a visit to the Ulee Lheue mass cemetery on 26 December 2018, where thousands of victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami are buried. Photo: Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP
A Malaysian girl lights a candle during a special inter-religious prayer for the tsunami victims in Kuala Lumpur in 2004. Photo: Pacik/AFP
Boys use a mobile phone in front of a landmark dedicated to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Aceh province. Photo: Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP
A military truck passes a bridge in devastated area of Leupung in Aceh Besar, Indonesia on 31 January 2005. Photo: Adek Berry/AFP

Better prepared today?

Fifteen years later, the regions affected by the disaster have been largely rebuilt. 

“With smooth new highways and vibrant late-night cafes, [Banda Aceh] has been transformed,” National Geographic’s Tim Folger reported in September, 2018. “Aside from a number of immaculately groomed mass graves, and a few intentional reminders of the disaster – such as the presence of a large ship marooned in a city park – most signs of the tsunami’s damage have been erased.”

But while all this money and renewed construction has left many of the areas affected looking brand-new, other communities have had a harder time rebuilding.

Almost a fifth of the Banda Aceh’s population lives under the poverty line, and the area remains one of the poorest in Indonesia. Making matters worse is that in the years since the 2004 tsunami, there has been a compounding impact of multiple natural disasters hitting the underfunded area.

The government, though praised for acting as a “model of post-crisis governance and leadership” following the tsunami, has been criticised for the amount of aid that went towards rebuilding the western coastline and not towards providing direct financial aid to a population already struggling before the tsunami. Critics also said that government aid elevated certain low-income areas far above others, fostering inequality between communities.

They’re still dealing with all the emotions that come with a sudden disaster

Cinira Baldi of Project HOPE

In 2018, Cinira Baldi, the chief development and communications officer at Project HOPE, a global organisation “dedicated to placing power in the hands of local health care workers”, visited Palu city in Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi province 2,800km east of Bander Aceh. She was dismayed to see that the rubble she thought from a distance was construction work, was actually destruction that hadn’t been repaired after a more recent natural disaster. 

Sulawesi had been hit the previous year by another tsunami after the Anak Krakatau volcano erupted and parts of its crater collapsed into the sea at high tide. The smaller disaster, which claimed more than 400 lives, hit many of the same areas, but did not spur the same international aid response. 

“Every single person that we spoke to, including the healthcare workers … [say] it’s almost as if it happened yesterday,” she said. “They’re still dealing with all the emotions that come with a sudden disaster.”

Thai students make sand sculptures during the tenth anniversary of the 2004 tsunami at Patong beach in Phuket province on 26 December 2014. Photo: Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP
A worker cleans a mass cemetery for victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 220,000 on 23 December 2019, ahead of the 15th anniversary of the disaster. Photo: Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP

The extent of the damage and human loss suffered in the 2017 tsunami again raised questions about Indonesia’s disaster preparedness. Most concerningly, as there was no triggering earthquake, the 2017 tsunami circumvented the warning systems and response mechanisms built in the wake of 2004.

Dr Renato Solidum, undersecretary for disaster risk reduction in the Philippines and chair of the ASEAN Sub-Committee on Meteorology and Geophysics, emphasised not only the importance of preparedness but also awareness. 

He said though disaster monitoring in the Indian Ocean has advanced in the last fifteen years, work educating local communities on best practices in natural disasters needs to be re-energised. Dr Solidum added that with disasters like the 2004 and 2017 tsunamis, even working warning systems would have made little difference as the waves hit so soon after the inciting events. 

“We cannot just simply rely on technology, based on many experiences in different parts of the globe … we must make sure that people really understand that sometimes technology will not work,” he told Southeast Asia Globe

Prioritising preparedness

More than ten million people live on the coastlines of Southeast Asia. And as the climate emergency gets more dire, those millions will be among the first people affected by water-based threats like rising seas and tsunamis.

Dr Solidum said that as sea levels rise due to increasing temperatures associated with the climate crisis, the starting point for the water is heightened, thereby increasing how far inland tsunamis flood and their potential damage.

“Hypothetically, areas that can be safe now, may not be safe tomorrow when sea levels have risen,” he said.

With more frequent and destructive natural disasters fast becoming a reality, preparedness has become a priority for many countries in the region. 

With assistance from the government of Japan, in Indonesia schools have become the epicentre of emergency response training. Most smaller islands have one school, making them perfect centres for education that should trickle down to families in their communities. 

Indonesian tsunami surviving children arrive at their devastated school in Banda Aceh on 26 January 2005. Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP

In the Philippines, just this year they have begun to develop a new initiative aiming to bridge communication between countries before and after natural disasters occur – “science, technology and innovation” is how Dr Solidum describes the initiative.

On the small Indian Ocean island nation of the Maldives, Kolhufushi island, one of many making up the archipelago, conducted their first tsunami drill in February 2018. When the first wave hit in 2004, the people of the island had “no concept of tsunamis nor of emergency response”, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). 

“We must prioritise preparedness if we are to prevent loss at this scale from happening again,” said Ahmed Shifaz, Resilience and Climate Change Programme Officer of UNDP Maldives, in a press release in February 2018.

You’re constantly thinking in the back of your mind, I’m sure, ‘when’s the next event going to happen, and will I be safe?

Cinira Baldi of Project HOPE

Today, the scale of the destruction inflicted in 2004 is barely perceptible to outsiders. Tourists can once again be seen tanning on Thailand’s Patong Beach, surfing the waves of Lhoknga coastline in Indonesia and swimming off the coast of Chennai in India.

While in Banda Aceh, perhaps the most devastated community of all, if visitors don’t head to the Ulee Lheue mass cemetery, the burial place of the thousands of victims, the scale of the lives lost just fifteen years ago is unlikely to be apparent.

Locals sometimes get the same respite from the trauma of that time, but in many ways, the disaster lives on through the threat of new ones.

“[People in these areas are] not able to pack up their things and restart somewhere safer,” said Baldi. “You’re constantly thinking in the back of your mind, I’m sure, ‘when’s the next event going to happen, and will I be safe?’” 

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