Tsunami: is earth striking back?

Posted: 18 January 2005

For an Indian perspective on the tsunami which overwhelmed the coasts of the Indian Ocean, we turned to Darryl D'Monte, in Delhi, for this report.

It would tempting to imagine - as countless doomsayers must doubtlessly be shaking their heads and asserting - that Earth, after centuries of relentless abuse by humankind, is finally hitting back with a vengeance.

After all, the catastrophe which followed the earthquake off the coast of Sumatra was only the latest, and most damaging, of a series of disasters. In 2004, earthquakes devastated Morocco in February and the Japanese island of Honshu in October, with another measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale hitting a Tasmanian island on December 23, culminating in the Bay of Bengal tsunami just three days later.

And, just to complete the almost Biblical warnings of impending disaster, virtually to the hour, 12 months prior to the Indonesian earthquake, Earth adjusted itself tectonically at the junction of its Arabian and Eurasian plates, destroying the ancient Iranian city of Bam.

However, the truth obviously is that these quakes are entirely induced by nature and humans have no hand in them. Far from being frozen in time, Earth is continuously in motion, as we are discovering very late. The science of plate tectonics is only four decades old.

Erratic monsoons

What is more, we have not made sufficient effort to inform ourselves about it, possibly out of the belief that these are "acts of god", over which we have no control and therefore are not worth spending too much time or money over. Nothing could be further from the facts, because the more we learn about these traumatic changes under Earth's surface, the more we can do to lessen the death and destruction they cause.

There are other sudden changes in nature that are at least partly triggered off by various interventions by humans. There have been several cyclones in 2004; snow fell on a mountain in the UAE for the first time; and the long hot summers in Europe and erratic monsoons closer home are all signals that the climate is changing.

Admittedly, cyclones in particular are global disturbances for which it will be difficult to pinpoint any direct cause and effect, like an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Even the monsoons are global in character,affected by ocean currents in remote parts of the world, like the fickle El Nino and La Nina off Latin America. But it is becoming increasingly clear that due to the unprecedented carbon dioxide build-up (the main culprit responsible for global warming), predictable weather patterns are now a thing of the past.

Freakish weather

It is often said that Indian (and South Asian) agriculture is always a gamble with the monsoon. Indeed, one must remember that entire economies and even political elections here are dependent on the wrath or munificence of nature, as the case may be.

Meteorologists point out that in recent years, the average precipitation over the Indian sub-continent, consisting of rainfall and snowmelt from the Himalayas, has not varied very much. What has varied is the regularity of the monsoon - with early or late rains becoming the norm rather than the exception. This is very much related to the atmospheric disturbances caused by global warming, since the monsoons are a cyclical phenomenon, triggered off by ocean currents which, in turn, heat or cool the air above and set in motion what used to be a delicate balance.

Even the fiercest sceptics of global warming cannot deny that the weather is getting more freakish by the month, as the snow in UAE symbolises.

Small islands

There is another parallel between tsunamis and climate change. Both cause an extraordinary rise in sea levels - the former temporarily but the latter for very much longer. This is why those who are drawing the attention of the world to global warming are referring to it as a "creeping tsunami".

Recently, the President of Counterpart International, a Washington-based development organisation, Lelei LeLaulu, cited how small island states were constantly facing this backlash, with global warming causing the polar icecaps to melt. Vast quantities of water, which are otherwise stored in ice, are melting and this leads to a gradual rise in ocean levels. Islands and countries with low-lying coastlines are at risk literally of survival. The World Bank estimates that if the ocean evels rise by a metre some decades hence, 40 million will be displaced in Bangladesh alone.

"The South Asian tsunami is a reminder of how vulnerable life is on small islands," he said. "The waves swept over many of them in the Indian Ocean, destroying all infrastructure and cutting off communications. There were no airstrips for relief planes to land, no jetties for ships to dock," said LeLaulu, who is also chairperson of the Foundation of the Peoples of the South Pacific.

Just as with the ever-increasing hurricanes, global warming and rise in sea levels puts islanders at even greater risk. Sea water encroaches on the water tables even without tidal waves washing over low-lying islands. LeLaulu was speaking before the UN Environment Programme's (UNEP)international meeting, which took place in Mauritius in mid-January 2005, on the "10-Year Review of the Barbados Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of the Small Island Developing States".

"Small island states need access to the tools needed to build protection for themselves to mitigate deadly damage caused by natural and man-made disasters. The Mauritius conference is a wonderful place for the richer countries to show their care for the well-being of small islanders," said LeLaulu.

Himalayan dangers

There is another area where tectonics and climate change interface. As is well documented, the Himalayas are a very "young" mountain chain in geological terms and due to the thrusting upwards of this plate, the mountains are actually rising infinitesimally every year. At the same time, due to global warming, the glaciers are melting and are rapidly shrinking in size.

The implications of this human-made disaster are simply too mind-boggling to contemplate: the Indo-Gangetic plains harbour the largest population in any developing country, primarily of poor peasants who are entirely dependent on the snow-fed rivers which originate in these mountains. If the glaciers melt too quickly in summer, the gradual release of life-giving water throughout the year will be disrupted, with consequences that can well be imagined.

While it was true that the tsunami, which was triggered off by the quake near Aceh (Indonesia), could not have been averted, humankind's mindless interference with nature's protective mechanism on the coastline throughout the region has certainly compounded the damage. The destruction of mangroves, rampant construction of buildings and roads along the coast and aquaculture along shallow waters are all interventions that deprived coastal populations of the protection that nature otherwise had provided.

These low-lying littoral areas ought to be kept free of human intervention, so that violent storms and the like, which cause unusually high waves, do not cause as much destruction as they now do.

One image on Indian TV news channels - of the tree-top huts of tribals in the Andaman and Nicobar islands - remains in one's memory. These Shompen tribals, who number only a few scores and are in imminent danger of extinction much before the tsunami hit them, were respectful of the wrath of nature in these low-lying islands. Their arboreal homes were testimony to their folk knowledge, which induced them to take these elementary precautions - in startling contrast to the armies of "developers", private and public, who flout environmental regulations with impunity.

Darryl D'Monte chairs the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India and is a conributing editor to this website. He wrote this article for the Women's Feature Service on Delhi.