When the Hollywood movie The Day After Tomorrow was showing in Colombo last summer, many asked me if such a calamity could befall Sri Lanka. Without debating the scientific merits of the movie, I said that Nature always had a few tricks up her sleeve.
Little did I imagine that before the year ended, killer waves 30 feet high would lash the coast of Sri Lanka, leaving an unprecedented trail of destruction in my adopted country. For over two million Sri Lankans -- and indeed, all of us -- the day after Christmas was a living nightmare that mimicked the celluloid horrors of The Day After Tomorrow.
When they arrived with practically no warning, the waves were ruthless and indiscriminate. They swept away fishermen and tourists, pilgrims and prisoners, soldiers and rebels. They displayed gross disregard for our artificial human divisions and demarcations. As the death toll passed the 30,000 mark, with thousands more missing, I kept recalling the words of William Makepeace Thackeray: “Good or bad, guilty or innocent -- they are all equal now.”
My heart-felt sympathy goes out to all those who lost family members or friends. My family and I were more fortunate -- Colombo was spared the highest waves, being on the opposite side of the island. But among those who directly experienced the tsunami were my staff at our diving station in Hikkaduwa, and at my holiday homes in Kahawa and Thiranagama -- all beachfront properties located along the southern coast. They all survived, and relate harrowing tales. However, our diving equipment and boats were washed away.
As Sri Lankans struggle to come to terms with the shared grief and multiple impacts of this tragedy, they confront a massive humanitarian crisis involving over one million displaced persons. The first priority is to provide emergency shelter and relief, and then create conditions that will help them to return to normal lives and livelihoods as soon as possible. We also need to address the long term issues of better preparedness, effective warning systems and disaster mitigation.
The best tribute we can pay to all who perished or suffered in this disaster is to heed the powerful lessons it offers us. Nature has spoken loud and clear, and we ignore her at our peril.
For over two decades, I have been an unhappy witness to the bitter armed conflict in Sri Lanka, which has consumed twice as many lives as the tsunami, and blighted the future of millions more. Peace in Sri Lanka has been my number one wish for many years -- there is now renewed hope that the lashing from the seas will finally convince everyone of the complete futility of war.
Political cartoonists in Sri Lankan newspapers were quick to make this point. One cartoon, appearing two days after the disaster, showed a government soldier and Tiger rebel swimming together in the currents, struggling to save their lives. (Indeed, there have been reports of them helping each other in the hour of need.) Their common question: what happened to the border that we fought so hard for?
In a message broadcast over local television only a few days before the tsunami, I made the same point. “We should not allow the primitive forces of territoriality and aggression to rule our minds and shape our actions. If we do, all our material progress and economic growth will amount to nothing.”
I added: “I have always been an optimist, and I still remain optimistic that Sri Lanka will achieve lasting peace.”
The week after the disaster, the usually bickering political parties came together -- at least momentarily -- to mourn the dead and to pledge rebuilding the ravaged island. If only such unity is sustained, Sri Lanka can rebuild physically and also heal the long standing wounds that have bled this beautiful island for far too long.
On a more technical level, too, the disaster holds lessons that must be heeded. One that is particularly close to my heart concerns coastal resource management. In the wake of the tsunami, the government announced that it will strictly enforce an existing rule that regulates any construction within 300 meters of the shore. For a long time, this rule has been ignored or openly flouted by individuals as well as hotel developers and shrimp farmers -- many of who have now paid a terrible price for their arrogance or ignorance.
We should also ensure that all remaining coral reefs and coastal mangrove forests are fully protected. These natural formations act as splendid bulwarks against the wrath of the sea -- while they cannot block out tsunamis, they can certainly reduce their impact. In the past few days, environmentalists and divers from across South and Southeast Asia have reported examples of this phenomenon. Dr M S Swaminathan, father of India’s green revolution, says mangroves in southern India’s Pitchavaram and Muthupet regions acted like a shield and bore the brunt of the tsunami. “The impact was mitigated and lives and property of the communities inhabiting the region were saved”.
Alas, this news arrives too late to save most of Sri Lanka’s mangroves and coral reefs. For half a century, I have watched with mounting dismay how both these natural resources were plundered. From the mid 1950s, when I first explored the seas around Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and decided to settle down on the island, I have been calling for greater protection for the reefs. For every person who heeded my call, there were many who did not. Fuelled by a combination of poverty, indifference and official apathy, coral mining has continued to destroy these ‘rainforests of the sea’ -- thus eroding our natural defence.
Mining was not the only threat to the reef. My first book on Sri Lanka, The Reefs of Taprobane (1957), carried a photograph showing fishermen using dynamite to stun and catch fish – blowing up everything for metres around. This completely illegal activity has continued over the years, depleting fish stocks and wrecking the reef.
I once warned that Sri Lanka’s southern coasts will be inundated by enhanced sea erosion owing to coral mining. Of course, nobody could predict the tsunami -- but I wonder how many thousands of innocent lives could have been saved if the right action had been taken at the right time.
As memories of the tsunami slowly begin to fade, it can once again be tempting to resort to these and other gross violations of nature and law. Our big challenge in rebuilding Sri Lanka is to not only restore the damaged infrastructure, but create viable livelihood opportunities for millions of people who will otherwise return to illicit and unsustainable practices. At least part of the large volume of aid should be invested in long term projects that address these needs.
The outside world can play a role to ensure that this happens. The Asian tsunami has been called the first truly globalised disaster of our time. Certainly, the tremors from the bottom of the Indian Ocean reverberated well beyond the dozen countries that were directly impacted. Inspired by television coverage, people all over the world donated in cash, kind, skills or time. This prompted their governments to follow -- but this is just a start.
For real changes to happen, Sri Lanka and other affected countries need sustained assistance and constant engagement by the world’s rich nations and corporations. They also need appropriate investments in technology and skills to stand on their own feet.
The media can keep these issues alive. The New Year dawned with the Global Family closely following the unfolding tragedy via satellite television and on the web. As the grim images from Aceh, Chennai, Galle and elsewhere replaced the traditional scenes of celebrations, I realized that it will soon be 60 years since I invented the communications satellite (in Wireless World, October 1945). I was also reminded of what Bernard Kouchner, former French health minister and first UN governor of Kosovo, once said: “Where there is no camera, there is no humanitarian intervention.”
But cameras and other media have to do more than just document the devastation and mobilise emergency relief. Media need to move beyond body counts and aid appeals to find lasting, meaningful ways of supporting Asia’s recovery.
The real stories of survival and heroism are only just beginning. Let network TV move on to the next big story. I am confident that the cyber activists and committed local journalists will keep us informed. The Web offers a platform for passionate individuals and small groups to get their views out to the world.
Indeed, this will be a real test for information and communications technologies (ICTs).
On that fateful day, hundreds of amateurs captured breath-taking images of the Asian tsunami using their hand-held video cameras. TV networks and professionals arrived only hours later.
In the coming months, we should return to these locations, armed with video cameras, to record the next big wave -- of human spirit and human perseverance.
* * * * *
Arthur C. Clarke, 87, has lived in Sri Lanka since 1956 and became the
first Resident Guest in 1975. Now completely wheel-chaired by Post Polio,
he has no plans to leave Sri Lanka again.
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