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Tsunami Disaster: Opportunity for Change?

By Kim Stewart and Stephanie Long - posted Thursday, 31 March 2005

The tidal wave, with its appalling loss of life, reminds us in grim and stark terms of the vulnerability of coastal communities to natural disasters including small islands. Clearly, it is the suffering of the people and their urgent need for food, shelter, medicines and clean and sufficient drinking water that must be our number one priority.

But when these essential needs are met, attention will turn to reconstruction and the impact of the tsunami on precious and economically important habitats such as coral reefs and mangroves ...

Klaus Toepfer Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme, January 6, 2005.


The Asian tsunami disaster has brought home to the world the power of nature to eradicate human endeavours. Many thousands of lives have been lost, while millions more who survived have been displaced and made homeless. At this important juncture in the tsunami disaster, as reconstruction gets underway, there is an opportunity to take into account the consequences of climate change in the future, including the long-term likelihood of sea-level rises.

The greatest portion of the world’s surface is water and the vast majority of the world’s people live by the water. In the simplest of terms, we are land-based creatures and therefore changes in sea-levels along coastal areas affects our lives. The Asian tsunami demonstrated this on a catastrophic level. Due to the high quality of climate science knowledge we now know that a rise in sea-levels is inevitable in the coming decades and has already been observed.

A global rise in sea-levels will affect all coastal societies, but none more so than the small island states and densely populated low-lying coastal areas. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) report, Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, estimates a projected rise of 0.09 to 0.88 m from 1990 to 2100. Currently the sea-level is rising at a rate of about 2.5mm per year

Many islands and coastal areas are expected to become uninhabitable even before the sea-level rises as salt water contaminates of fresh water sources on islands; damages coral reefs through rising water temperatures and increased incidence of storms; while increased erosion will make life increasingly difficult for humans and wildlife alike. More king tides, flooding, cyclones and storm surges are already leading to the erosion of human structures and the land base on Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands and the Maldives. The decline in agriculture and fishing will decrease these small nations' ability to cope, with expectations they will abandon threatened areas, increase the rate of resource exploitation and create a self-defeating spiral leading to decreased investment and and a need for increased international aid.

The physical impacts of climate change and a decrease in investment can spell a fatal combination for island nations. It moves response to environmental impacts out of the realm of simple distribution of costs to become a moral issue of survival and sovereignty.

The Australian aid appeal has shown that Australians can increase private donations in times of crisis, and may be equally prepared to take responsibility where it is due, as the highest per capita greenhouse emitters in the world. But more importantly, it is essential the generosity shown by people across the world is not wasted in reconstruction that doesn’t take into consideration the probable impact of a higher sea-level caused by climate change.


It is imperative that the international response to the tsunami is to reconstruct communities protected from these rises. There are two key ways in which the international effort can support this:

  • first, by ensuring the most appropriate infrastructure is built away from the immediate coastline; and 
  • second, by conserving the natural systems, such as reefs and mangroves, that protect coastlines from the sea.

Step One: Plan for a “climate changed” coastline

In 2001 the IPCC estimated that global sea-level rose by 0.1 to 0.2 metres during the 20th century, which has had a significant impact by increasing the high water level of storm surges and king tides. Additionally, there is increasing scientific interest and research into “non-linear” or rapid climate change events such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which are predicted to result in a seven metre increase in sea-levels globally.

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About the Authors

Kim Stewart is actively involved of Friends of the Earth Australia’s climate justice campaign.

Stephanie Long is actively involved of Friends of the Earth Australia’s climate justice campaign.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Kim Stewart
All articles by Stephanie Long
Related Links
Indonesian Forum for the Environment

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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