Colombo, Sri Lanka; 10 January 2005: 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
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.
Forover 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
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."
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
& shy;-- all beachfront properties located along the southern
coast. They all survived, and relate harrowing tales.
However, our diving equipment and boats were washed away.
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.
"Nature has spoken loud and clear, and we ignore
her at our peril."
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.
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.
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?
should not allow the primitive forces of territoriality
and aggression to rule our minds and shape our actions..."
breakfast at the refugee camp in Galle.
Sculpture at the center
Northern part of Sri Lanka.
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
added: "I have always been an optimist, and I still
remain optimistic that Sri Lanka will achieve lasting
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
scene from the Refugee Camp in Galle - January 2005.
victim of tsunami, despite of his pain and lost,
he is proud of his flag at the refugee camp in Galle
- January 2005.
"I wonder how many thousands of innocent
lives could have been saved if the right action had been
taken at the right time."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
this will be a real test for information and communications
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
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.
any clarifications, please contact Nalaka Gunawardene
_ . _
> For EGOGRAM
of Sir Arthur C. CLARKE - 2005
A Tribute for Sir
Arthur C. CLARKE's 87th Birthday
Visits to Sir Arthur C. CLARKE
the "tidal wave" one, the photos were taken
by Bircan Ünver.
Millennium #15 Issue, May 2005