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February 3, 2005

After the Tsunami. What Now?

There’s a second tsunami coming, warned Paul Nelson, a Pitt assistant professor of international development.

Nelson was citing a Jan. 4 report from an Indonesian housing authority. “In that report, they’re referring to a figurative ‘tsunami,'” Nelson said, “an alert that as governments set out in each of the most affected countries to recover and redevelop their coastal areas, there’s the potential that communities there will be as traumatized by that redevelopment as by the literal tsunami.”

Nelson was one of four Pitt experts who spoke here last week on “Tsunami: Causes, Impact and Response,” a public forum that focused on both the science behind the Dec. 26 Indian Ocean basin catastrophe and the road map to recovery.

The other panelists were William Harbert, chair, Department of Geology and Planetary Sciences, who spoke on “The Life of a Tsunami and Geospatial Analysis of This Coastal Hazard”; Louise Comfort, professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) and an expert on disaster management strategies, who spoke on “Communication, Coordination and Collective Action,” and Robbie Ali, visiting assistant professor and director of the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities in the Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH), whose topic was “Tsunami 2004: From Global Disaster to Personal Action.”

The panelists at the Jan. 25 forum agreed that the world’s focus now should shift from emergency first-response efforts to longer-term strategies.

A month after the Dec. 26 tsunami is an appropriate time to refocus on longer-term goals, said GSPIA’s Nelson, an expert on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and public policy who spoke on “The Day After: The Role of Nongovernmental Organizations in Disaster Relief and Reconstruction.”

Ali concurred. “It’s a good thing we waited a month to have this forum, because there is that initial response, but what really counts is now and in the future,” he said. “Once the media spotlight is off, people go back to forgetting about it and go back to their usual state of ‘Yeah, there are problems out there, but we’re disconnected from them.”

“The number of issues raised by a disaster of this magnitude are infinite,” said GSPIA Dean Carolyn Ban, who moderated the forum. The initial press coverage focused on the extent of the damage and the reactions of the world, she said. “The more recent coverage has been about the political environment and how that interacts with the problems of refugees and displaced people,” Ban said. “The response is complicated by the severity and by the political and economic context of this disaster.”

The Indonesian government, for example, already is building new settlements and forcing displaced citizens to move into them. “A: that’s a political-control thing; and B: it’s breaking up communities and families,” Ban pointed out.

“We’re here to understand the geology of a tsunami, as well as the challenges and dilemmas of response in these areas of political, economic, religious and ethnic conflicts,” she said.


Preparing for collective action

Although GSPIA professor Louise Comfort has studied disaster response management for 20 years, she said, “it’s always stunning and sobering to see an event of this magnitude and to recognize the incredible role of public agencies in this kind of disaster.

“The people who in live in [the affected] coastal communities had no notion of what a tsunami was or what they could have done about it,” she said.

For Comfort, life or death in natural disasters hinges on the existence and coordination of information. She noted that some people stood on the beach and watched the tsunami come instead of running for their lives.

In order to protect a country’s citizens, public managers must have prior knowledge, advance communications and appropriate channels of communication that allow other organizations to coordinate their activities, she said. “[Communication] enables citizens and other organizations to take collective action to reduce threat and risk.”

Tragically, capacity to take collective action for this natural disaster wasn’t in place: An estimated 150,000 people in Aceh, a province of Indonesia, lost their lives – the highest regional death toll from the tsunami.

“There was an almost total lack of knowledge about what a tsunami was and what to do if it occurs,” Comfort said.

Particularly hard hit was the eastern coastline at Banda Aceh, where there has been a long-running civil war with a separatist movement claiming independence from the Indonesian government.

The central government of Indonesia was responsible for the people in Banda Aceh, “but the local people did not trust the central government,” Comfort said. “They were very much afraid of the Indonesian army, who had been shooting at them literally the week before the tsunami.”

Given the hostility and extreme distrust between the Indonesian government and Banda Aceh people, when the tsunami hit “it was extremely difficult to manage any kind of collective action to get people out of the way,” she said. There were some instances of individuals alerting friends and family of the oncoming disaster, she added.

Comfort focused on the international aspect of the tragedy. She noted that the four nations most severely affected by the tsunami had different forms of governments and dominant religions, facts that caused their responses to the tsunami to vary.

“The leadership in each of these countries was significantly different and they sent different messages to their citizens,” Comfort said.

The tsunami gave the Indonesian government an opportunity to establish control over Banda Aceh. “The people of Banda Aceh needed the assistance of the central government.”

There was a different leadership scenario in Sri Lanka, which also suffered from civil strife prior to the tsunami, according to Comfort. “The president of the country, a woman who in recent months survived an assassination attempt, reached out to the ethnic minorities and said, ‘It’s time to stop this civil conflict, we need to work together and protect our nation.'”

India already had survived several devastating earthquakes before the tsunami. Its prime minister, knowing that the country ended up deeper in debt by accepting international aid, rejected such assistance following the tsunami, Comfort said.

Also, India announced that it would build a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean basin.

Thailand had yet another focus – technology. Thailand’s prime minister, who holds a Ph.D., is the owner of the only telecommunications system in the country. “He is very interested in integrating information technology into disaster management and response,” she said. The prime minister has offered to build a tsunami warning system in Indonesia, but insists on using Thai technology, which is causing friction between the two countries, she added.


The role of NGOs

“Much of what I teach when we work to analyze problems emphasizes that poor people are always differently affected,” said GSPIA’s Paul Nelson. “The poor have fewer resources to fall back on, less recourse to the legal institutions and less influence with the government.”

But the tsunami natural disaster temporarily blurred human economic distinctions. “It seemed as if everyone was equal for a day or a few days, whether you live in shacks or were rich tourists staying in hotels,” Nelson said. “But it’s in the rebuilding and reconstruction that the difference between the haves and have-nots will resurface, and with a vengeance.”

In looking at the big picture over the next several years, Nelson made three points about the role of NGOs in the tsunami recovery process.

“First, the NGOs are going to have a secondary role in this reconstruction process,” Nelson said. “International organizations like CARE will not be making decisions about where to build roads, for example, or where housing will go or what neighborhoods will get relief. It’s the governments that are going to be doing this, and for the most part by contracting with private corporations.”

For instance, the government-appointed task force for recovery in Sri Lanka is stacked with prominent bankers and heads of major construction firms, Nelson said. “My fear is a plan will be developed that will be more profitable for these business people than it is beneficial for those living on the coastline,” he said.

Second, the NGOs that will have the most important role are not going to be the household-name, international NGOs, but local and national organizations in the countries involved, he maintained.

“These local organizations were also the first responders and have done by most accounts terrific work,” Nelson said. “But now they have to supply a different set of skills and capacities that will be most important to [expedite] village- and neighborhood-level construction projects. It’s good to know you can contribute to these organizations directly.”

A list of local NGOs in each of the severely affected countries and a mechanism for contributing funds can be found at the Synergos web site,, he said.

“Third, the NGOs need to play an important role in mobilizing us as citizens as much as mobilizing us as donors,” Nelson said.

Among other roles, citizens first should insist that governments make good on their pledges of financial aid.

“If we look over the last 10 years or so at the major disasters where there have been pledges by the U.S. and other governments, the record has been shameful,” Nelson maintained.

As examples, last year’s earthquake in Iran resulted in $1.1 billion pledged, but so far only $17.5 million has been collected. Similarly, for Hurricane Mitch in 1998, $3.5 billion was pledged to aid victims and less than a third of that has been delivered, he said.

“Two, we need to think collectively about what generosity means in this situation,” Nelson said. “In addition to development assistance, is forgiving debts an appropriate measure? It’s already being discussed in the international community. Are there trade concessions or special trade privileges that can be granted?”

Although these are issues that may take years to resolve, NGOs should be the watchdogs who keep the debate going, he said.

“Three, NGOs should insist that people’s rights in the affected areas are protected. There are something like 1.7 million displaced people and many more who are devastated economically. The legal rights of many of the poorest people may be pretty shaky,” Nelson said.

But victims of the tsunami have very clearly delineated international human rights, he said, such as the right to housing, the right to work and, particularly relevant to displaced persons, the right to have access to where they work.

“These people have been the beneficiaries of generosity, and that’s good and right,” Nelson said. “But they have to also be seen to have dignity and human rights, and this is where being citizens and humanitarians comes together: How well we and the NGOs working in those areas see to that will be the best measure of our response.”


Life of a tsunami

Geology’s Harbert distilled the complexities of the Indian Ocean tsunami, which built up to speeds of 720-800 kilometers per hour before slamming the coasts of Indonesia, India, Thailand and Sri Lanka, among others.

Drawing on his research, which focuses on plate tectonics, geospatial analysis applied to geohazards, environmental geophysics and paleomagnetism, Harbert first explained how an earthquake became the tsunami.

The movement of two tectonic plates, the Indian and Burma plates, in the Indian Ocean triggered an earthquake that registered 9.0 on the Richter scale, making it the fourth most powerful earthquake since 1900. “There’s constant convergence between the Indian and Burma plates,” Harbert said. “It’s like two rough objects where one is pushing up against another and the surfaces accumulate convergence.”

The sea floor deformed and pushed all of the water above the earthquake epicenter. And then the water fell back down, he explained. The event unleashed an enormous amount of energy: The earthquake released enough energy to boil 40 gallons of water for every person on Earth, Harbert estimated. The energy generated by the tsunami – a couple of orders of magnitude less than the wrath of the earthquake – was roughly equal to more than twice the total of explosive energy used during World War II, Harbert said.

Within several minutes of the earthquake, the tsunami split in two and “the waves spread out in two directions like ripples on a pond,” Harbert said. One wave headed toward the deep ocean, called a distance tsunami, and the other wave, known as a local tsunami, headed toward land. A single tsunami wave may reach a length of more than 100 miles in the open ocean, he said.

The local tsunami sped through the deep seas underwater at a rate similar to a soaring jet airliner, barely detectable to any ship afloat on the ocean. In fact, tsunami is a Japanese word meaning “harbor wave,” Harbert noted. The term originates from when fisherman at sea could not detect an incoming tsunami, yet when they returned to shore they saw their harbor destroyed.

As a tsunami approaches the shore, the energy contained in the wave compresses both vertically and horizontally. “All of that energy is just concentrated,” Harbert said. Upon reaching shallow water, the tsunami wave grows taller to 10, 20, even 30 meters. The size and intensity of the wave depends on the local conditions and the underwater topography.

“The effects of a tsunami usually result in the arrival of several waves, like a train of waves,” Harbert said. And the first wave is usually neither the largest nor the most significant in terms of damage.

For example, in the late 1940s, the sixth-arriving tsunami wave in Hawaii was the most destructive, according to Harbert. “Furthermore, one coastal community may experience no damaging waves while another not far away may experience destructive, deadly waves.”

A tsunami wave doesn’t hit the shore like a regular wave. “There is a surge of water,” Harbert explained. “Often what happens is that an unusually large amount of water withdraws from the coast, then water surges to a high level.”

(Waves from the Dec. 26 Indian Ocean tsunami reached as far as 1 – 1/4 miles inland, according to Tad Murty of the Tsunami Society.) Harbert said mapping inundation zones///what are they?/// along coastline areas is a successful strategy for predicting tsunamis. “The mapping allows you to model for areas where people might be affected and give them chance to prepare.”


Personal action

“We cannot change what happened, but what can we do?” asked GSPH’s Robbie Ali, who this week departs for the Aceh province of Indonesia to identify a potential “sister-city” for Pitt and Pittsburgh to adopt.

Even backed by the largest multinational effort in human history and with millions in pledged aid, “It’s going to be 10-20 years and probably much longer before these communities have recovered,” Ali said. Money alone will not cure all ills. There are global issues to confront, including terrorism, and local and regional issues such as corruption, poverty, under-development and civil war, he said.

“How can we get from where we are to try to help someone out? My thought is: Can we find one community, can we adopt a place and go from disaster relief to a model for sustainable development? This is just the way I work, I’m very locally focused. I like to start things up,” said Ali, who has widespread experience working in impoverished areas such as Borneo and Rwanda. “Hopefully, that would have implications beyond just that one community.”

In Borneo, Ali led a team of medical personnel who collaborated with the government health system, a local university, a medical school and an organization called Community Outreach Initiatives to develop a health training program for people in remote villages, “in what I think is going to be a fairly similar setting to what we’re trying,” he said.

Ali plans to “scope out” a region in the Aceh province. He will look at the state of the local infrastructure, agricultural activity, educational and health systems and resource management, he said, with an eye toward “adopting” the area for directed relief.

In thinking about the desire to do something good for these people, to nurture that desire and use it to produce some real relief, one fair question to ask, Ali said, is: What is in it for Pitt?

“There are research and teaching opportunities; it’s good public relations, and it gives us a chance to demonstrate that we can create a model of sustainable development” that could lead to funding for the University, he said. “Maybe we can get some people from the community we adopt to come here in a few years and tell us about what our generosity and help has accounted for.

“In Pittsburgh, we’ll need to gather support, organize, raise funds, build capacity and learn more about this place,” Ali said.


The Jan. 25 tsunami forum was co-sponsored by the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, the Graduate School of Public Health, the Asian Studies Center, the global studies program and the Ford Institute for Human Security.

-Peter Hart & Mary Ann Thomas

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