Not Always the Earthquake’s Fault- Remembering the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami

Synopsis provided by Professor Brian McAdoo.

The Library is pleased to host an exhibition curated by Professor Brian McAdoo from 14 – 25 January. The exhibition features images that capture the aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 both in fifteen Indian Ocean Nations and the Gulf Coast in America. These photographs were taken by Professor McAdoo and fellow scientists during the aftermath.


More about the exhibition

On Boxing Day, 2004, the Earth shook and changed the world.  The damage from this massive earthquake (M=9.3, second largest ever recorded) was eclipsed by the extraordinary tsunami it unleashed which killed or displaced people in 15 Indian Ocean nations.  A mere eight months later, Hurricane Katrina landed on the shores of the United States’ Gulf Coast- America’s Tsunami.  The unprecedented scale of these disasters forced us to rethink how we anticipate, understand, and respond to events of this magnitude, keeping in mind the ultimate goal of never seeing this degree of loss and suffering happen again.

The images in this exhibit were taken by the scientists charged with understanding the physical dimensions of these disasters.  As you will see, these earth scientists and civil engineers saw beyond the walls of their disciplinary silos and made connections between this geophysical phenomenon and the people and ecosystems it affected.  In fact, this event catalysed an insurgency from trying to understand ‘natural’ disasters as the result of a very large geophysical disturbance to a complex intersection of a large release of stored potential energy with vulnerable communities of plants, animals, and people as well as structures, both physical and institutional.

The holistic approach to the new Disaster Science that emerged from this suffering takes a radically interdisciplinary approach to understanding how people, ecosystems and structures (both physical and social) can work together to bounce back after the increasingly more frequent impacts.  Rather than focussing solely on the estimated magnitude and frequency of an impact, planners and researchers are asking questions such as

  • What are the economic and social impacts of moving artisan fisheries out of a coastal zone that is exposed to a Category 5 tropical cyclones every 10 years?
  • Should a stand of forest revered as sacred by indigenous populations be affected by road construction that promises economic development and access to education and healthcare?
  • Would a coastal community developing nation facing an 80% chance of a 15 m high tsunami within the next 50 years be better off seeking World Bank or IMF funding for engineered coastal protection, or should they invest in restoring native ecosystems that would provide beneficial services without the asserted protection of concrete?

Answers to questions like these are not clear.  But what is clear is that they cannot be addressed through the myopic lens of a single perspective.  Interdisciplinary teams of academics, UN agencies and public and private sector institutions are bringing their individual expertise together to divine solutions.  A potent example of this is the UN Cluster System that emerged after the Indian Ocean event- rather than having a single agency take the lead on an issue such as post-disaster water and sanitation, UNESCO, UN Environment, and the UN Development Programme worked with the World Health Organisation and other local and international NGOs to successfully address particularly complex issues such as this one.

We are a long way from disaster prevention and may never get there.  But a concerted effort lead by people determined to get the best resources around the table to address impossibly complex challenges will reduce the suffering caused by exposure to natural hazards.