Asian Earthquake and Tsunami Disaster

Author and Page information

  • by Anup Shah
  • This page last updated

Boxing day, 2004, one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history (measuring 9 on the Richter Scale), struck just off Sumatra, Indonesia, in a fault line running under the sea. The rupture caused massive waves, or tsunamis, that hurtled away from the epicenter, reaching shores as far away as Africa. Some 230,000 people were killed and the livelihoods of millions were destroyed in over 10 countries. This has been one of the biggest natural disasters in recent human history.

Please note, this page cannot aim to provide up to date detailed coverage of events as they unfold, as it is beyond my scope and ability. Some of the mentioned statistics may likely change very quickly. For such information, please see the More Information section below. Instead, this page provides an overview of some of the broader issues that this event has highlighted.

On this page:

  1. One of the largest earthquakes in recorded history
  2. Enormous Death toll and Devastation
  3. Greatest ever peacetime relief operation underway
  4. Aid in the context of Third World Debt
  5. Will the world keep its promised pledges?
  6. Financial Markets and Economic Impacts
  7. Tsunami Warning System. Could impact have been minimized?
  8. Rebuilding Broken Political Bridges
  9. Almost as many children die each week around the world
  10. More Information

One of the largest earthquakes in recorded history

Measuring 9 on the Richter Scale, the earthquake that hit under the sea near the northern Indonesian island of Sumatra was the strongest earthquake in the world for 40 years.

The massive 1,000km rupture along the Australian and Eurasian tectonic plates resulted in huge tsunami waves (or sea surges) crashing into coastal areas across south and east Asia, even reaching eastern Africa.

14 countries were affected by the tsunami
Source: 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake, Wikimedia Commons [Larger Map]

Countries affected were:

  • Indonesia
  • Sri Lanka
  • India
  • Thailand
  • Malaysia
  • Burma
  • Bangladesh
  • Maldives
  • Seychelles
  • Somalia
  • Kenya
  • Tanzania
  • Madagascar
  • South Africa

For details of country-level impacts, please see the More Information section below.

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Enormous Death toll and Devastation

It is believed that 230,000 people died.

The BBC also lists the worst recorded disasters in recent history, and shows that this tsunami disaster is one of the worst. Their information is tabulated as follows:

Natural DisastersSource: Tsunami among world's worst disasters, BBC, December 30, 2004
YearWhereHow many killedType of disaster
2003Bam, Iran26,271Earthquake
1976Tangshan, China242,000Earthquake
1923Tokyo, Japan140,000Earthquake
1887Huayan Kou, China900,000Yellow River breaks its banks
1815Sumbawa Island, Indonesia90,000Volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora
1556Shaanxi, Shanxi and Henan provinces, China830,000 estimatedEarthquake

(The BBC article cited also lists other disasters and has more information.)

For those who have survived, the future looks bleak as whole communities have been wiped out, and many of the survivors have been left homeless. The United Nations estimates that some 5 million lives have also been affected.

There is now great concern that disease will result from poor sanitation and lack of clean water. In addition, it is feared that there will be a proliferation of endemic disesases as a result of the stagnant pools of water that have been created. It is feared that these will claim just as many lives as the waves did.

This disaster also has to be taken in the context of on-going problems. Some regions, such as north eastern Sri Lanka, or Aceh in Indonesia, have seen violent conflicts for many years, as separatist rebels struggle with the government. For example, the United Nations reports that many landmines have been dislodged by the tsunamis in Sri Lanka. These were planted during the long-running civil war. The tsunami waves have spread them to other areas, and no-one would know where, exactly. As people slowly return to their homes and villages, they could face yet more problems.

The same United Nations report above, also notes that some World Heritage sites may have been affected, and the damage is currently being assessed.

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Greatest ever peacetime relief operation underway

This is an unprecedented global catastrophe and it requires an unprecedented global response.

UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, quoted from UN urges special wave response, BBC, December 30, 2004

The United Nations says this is the largest ever relief operation it has undertaken.

As the World Bank reports, U.S. President Bush says America will lead a global relief effort, creating a coalition of US-led countries.

The US is often regarded as hostile to the United Nations, the premier international body, and so this coalition effort would appear to conflict and overlap with the enormous world wide, United Nations-led, relief operations.

The BBC notes, [US Secretary of State, ] Mr Powell said the UN had chief responsibility for co-ordinating the aid effort, despite a move by Washington to set up a core group of donor countries with India, Australia and Japan.

The UN head for this massive effort himself has said that this coalition is welcome, and complimentary to the United Nations efforts, not counter-productive.

Aid from people, governments, and various organizations around the world has resulted in impressive amounts in a short time. For example, Tsunami aid: Who's giving what, BBC, January 6, 2005 lists the following as government aid:

  • Australia: $810m over 5 years (half on bilateral loans)
  • Germany: $689m
  • Japan: $500m
  • EU: $623m
  • US: $350m
  • World Bank: $250m (diverted from existing programs)
  • IMF: $1bn in emergency loans
  • Norway: $182m
  • Asia Development Bank: $175 (diverted from existing programs), $150m in new loans
  • UK: $96m
  • Italy: $96m
  • Sweden: $80m
  • Denmark: $75m
  • Spain: $68m
  • France: $66m
  • Canada: $66m
  • China: $63.1m
  • South Korea: $50m over next three years
  • Netherlands: $34m
  • Saudi Arabia: $30m
  • Qatar: $25m
  • Switzerland: $24m

But many countries have also seen large private donations, some exceeding their government's donations. The same BBC article also lists some of those:

  • Australia: $88m
  • Germany: $200m
  • United States: $120m
  • Norway: $60m
  • Britain: $189m
  • Italy: $20m
  • Sweden: $60m
  • France: $49m
  • Canada: $57m
  • South Korea: $13m
  • Netherlands: $35m
  • Saudi Arabia: $31m
  • Switzerland: $39m

Reuters lists many other examples of public responses including businesses (though it is not clear if these numbers get included in the private contributions).

By the time you read this, these numbers above are likely to be out of date, so please consult the sources listed above for updated numbers.

In addition to the above numbers, a lot more has also been offered, such as military aid.

Even though much has been pledged, as the BBC (mentioned above) also noted, Delivery of aid remains a problem as much of the region's infrastructure has been shattered. Some aid is not getting to areas that need it urgently, such as parts of Aceh.

Charity organizations and groups, such as the Disasters Emergency Committee in the U.K., (the main emergency organization), are stressing that less than a couple of cents for each dollar is going to administration costs. Furthermore, they suggest that people pledge money rather than food and other items, as this money can be spent nearer the location, so that things can be bought cheaper, and that local industries in affected countries can benefit, and that the relief experts can best determine what needs to be purchased.

In addition, charities and humanitarian organizations are raising the concern that attention must also turn to medium and long term rebuilding, as mainstream interest in relief and disasters typically lasts only while it makes for sensational headlines.

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Aid in the context of Third World Debt

As can be seen above, generous aid has been provided in hundreds of millions of dollars. Crippling Third World debt however, is in the hundreds of billions:

The Agence France Presse reports Indonesia’s public debt totals some $130.8 billion and Somalia owes $2.5 billion, according to figures supplied by the World Bank. Other tsunami-hit countries have debt burdens ranging from the Maldives' $202.6 million to India's $82.9 billion, Thailand's $58.2 billion and Malaysia's $48.3 billion.

Bush Says America Will Lead A Global Relief Effort, DevNews Media Center, World Bank, December 30, 2004

Odious third world debt issues are often ignored by the rich nations, or promises to deal with them have often turned out to be hollow. (This site's section on third world debt has more about how it impacts poor countries' ability to develop, alleviate poverty, and rebuild from disaster.)

Against the backdrop of this disaster’s recovery and rebuilding, this issue must surely be addressed in depth. Rich countries, the World Bank and the IMF have already indicated that there will be some early discussions and meetings to see how to deal with this, at least preempting any early criticism.

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Will the world keep its promised pledges?

Charities and the United Nations are also warning that based on previous experiences, large pledges of donations can often be reduced later. The following are some examples of how this happens:

  • Governments may renege on their pledges;
  • Double accounting may occur where some of the promised money is actually diverted from existing aid;
  • Less is actually delivered.

The British newspaper, The Guardian, captures this and is worth quoting at length:

Charities and international bodies say they fear that much of the money pledged so far to help the emergency in southern Asia may not materialise because governments traditionally renege on their humanitarian pledges.


But UN OCHA spokesman, Robert Smith, told the Guardian: We should be very cautious about these figures [of massive aid pledges]. Let's put it this way. Large-scale disasters tend to result in mammoth pledges which... do not always materialise in their entirety. The figures look much higher than they really are. What will end up on the ground will be much less.

Rudolf Muller, also of UN OCHA, said: There is definitely double accounting going on. A lot of the money will be swallowed up by the military or will have been been diverted from existing loans.

A spokesman for the Overseas Development Institute, Britain's leading aid analysts, said: The research evidence is that the immediate response to natural disasters involves some new money, but that rehabilitation needs are often met by switching aid money between uses rather than increasing total aid to the countries affected.

The disparity between government promises and the delivery of emergency and rehabilitation aid can be extreme. Iranian government officials working to rebuild Bam, destroyed by an earthquake exactly a year before the Asian tsunami, last week said that of $1.1bn aid promised by foreign countries and organisations only $17.5m had been sent.

Similarly, more than $400m was pledged by rich countries to help rebuild Mozambique after floods in 2000, but according to its public works minister, less than half was delivered.

The worst example was Hurricane Mitch, which in 1998 swept through Honduras and Nicaragua, killing more than 9,000 people and making 3 million homeless. Governments pledged more than $3.5bn and the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the EU promised a further $5.2bn, but less than a third of the money was ever raised.

Similarly, emergencies in Gujarat, Bangladesh and central America in the past three years have mostly not received all the money promised. The humanitarian emergency in Afghanistan attracted more than $700m of pledges, but less than half that has been sent. Of the $100bn promised for debt relief, only $400m was received.

John Vidal and Jamie Wilson, $2bn pledged, but will the world keep its promises?, The Guardian, January 3, 2005

(IPS also reports this in a news article titled: UN, Relief Groups Fear Aid Falling Behind Pledges and has some additional details.)

BBC aired its monthly public debate programs, Question Time. In the program on January 6, 2005, former UK government minister for development, Claire Short, noted that a lot of pledged money from governments is old money already assigned for other projects, which will now be redirected to this. However, what she also added was that it was sad that in effect, it was taking money from the poor to give to others in need.

This site's section on third world debt also has more examples of this, where countries have been promised debt relief, but sometimes it has never happened.

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Financial Markets and Economic Impacts

The International Monetary Fund said on Wednesday it was impossible to estimate the economic costs of Sunday's deadly earthquake and tsunami but cautioned the toll to individual countries will be enormous. (World Bank and Reuters)

Soon after news broke of this devastating event, business news shows reported drops in value of affected nations' currencies. A global markets expert interviewed on BBC (December 30, 2004) described investors and the general financial system as being callous at such times, as nervous investors naturally think about their own investments first and move money away from such areas.

The irony for poor countries especially, is that this would perhaps be the time that they really need stable financial systems to help in rebuilding.

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Tsunami Warning System. Could impact have been minimized?

Many are asking why there wasn't a warning system in place or if anything could have been done to warn people.

Scientists knew the earthquake had occurred very soon after the event, but because no international warning system had been put in place in the Indian ocean, they didn't know who to contact. The rich countries in the Pacific (such as Australia, Japan and the United States), who also suffer far more from tsunamis, do have such a system in place amongst them.

As a cruel irony, just a month or so before this disaster struck, nations around the Indian ocean had agreed that they did not need a warning system. The costs for poor countries for such a system are considerable, and the likelihood of a tsunami is very small. Time has provided cruel hindsight, and now affected nations in the Indian Ocean will be installing a warning system in the region.

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Rebuilding Broken Political Bridges

At such a devastating time, it is hard to see anything positive coming from this, but perhaps this tragedy will bring together different groups of people.

IPS reports, for example, how this disaster is creating temporary rapprochement between ethnic groups in Sri Lanka that stayed away from each other despite a three-year ceasefire between the government and Tamil separatist rebels.

During this relief effort, there seems to be cooperation between United Nations and US-led efforts. Various nations are helping each other, some who may in the past have not been as friendly.

At the individual level, moving stories abound of how local people and tourists have helped each other in this crisis.

These and many other examples not mentioned here shows that in the face of real devastation, peoples of the world can work together for common goals and help each other. Whether this can last beyond the immediate aftermath, is something we can only hope for.

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Almost as many children die each week around the world

According to UNICEF, 30,000 children die each day:

Every day, the equivalent of a major earthquake killing over 30,000 young children occurs to a disturbingly muted response. They die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.

Progress of Nations 2000, UNICEF, 2000

That is about 210,000 children each week, or just under 11 million children under five years age, each year, die due to poverty. And what if the definition of child was children under the age of 6, or 7, or 8, for example?

The overwhelming response to the tsunami disaster shows that if we want to, we can deal with world problems. But it also shows that we sometimes do not pay the same attention to even worse disasters (ones which are often man-made). It is also revealing how leaders of the rich countries and the media can be moved so positively for the tsunami disaster, but comparatively mention nothing of these needless deaths that have been occurring for many, many years.

One hopes that the heart-felt generosity of the ordinary public around the world will mean more interest in these wider social and global issues, and that this time, the media and world leaders cannot ignore other global disasters, especially those that are not naturally caused.

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More Information

This site’s section on natural disasters has a page with more information and links to other web sites that can provide more timely and detailed information about this and other issues.

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created:
  • Last updated:

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Document revision history

Updated aid pledge statistics and added a comparison of where this disaster ranks in recent history. Added an additional note where some of the government pledges will come from, and at what expense.