1 January 2017

Tsunamis become disasters because of the human context in which they occur. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Use examples of known tsunami events recently and in the past to illustrate your arguments. According to Wisner et al 2004, “disasters occur when hazards meet vulnerability,” implying that in unpopulated areas hazards can not become disasters as there is no vulnerability (Quarantelli E. L. 1998). Without humans being involved, tsunamis are nothing but giant waves; they may modify areas of uninhabited land and destroy some reefs but that does not make them disasters.

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Tsunamis become disasters when humans are involved; when their lives are at risk, their homes are destroyed, their livelihoods are lost etc. In addition, the economic loss caused by tsunamis could also largely effect the country as a whole. This essay will address the factors that affect the quality of human life in the 2011 Japan and 2004 South Asia tsunamis, and what made them become two of the word’s biggest disasters. Tsunamis become disasters when they result in loss of lives, injuries, and displacement of human population.

In the case of South Asia and Tohoku tsunamis the coastline was densely populated leading to thousands of lives being lost as well as extensive damage to infrastructure – these were two of the greatest disasters the modern world had ever seen. The 2004 South Asia tsunami caused more than 270,000 deaths in fourteen countries across two continents (The Bolton Council of Mosques 2007-2012), whereas the Tohoku tsunami had caused approximately 20,000 deaths. This latter death toll was surprisingly high as Japan has the world’s largest seismometer network, tsunami barriers and earthquake early-warning system (Cyranoski, 2011).

In comparison, the Indian Ocean had no underwater warning system and therefore, the high count of human deaths in South Asia was expected. The number of casualties would have been less had Japan’s early-warning system not failed, when seismologists underestimated the magnitude of the earthquake (Cyranoski, 2011). Due to the false calculation, people were only expecting a tsunami of 4-5 metres and did not feel the need to flee to higher ground, as they relied on the 20-metre thick barriers to protect them.

However, there was no way the barrier could have stopped such a large wave, rising an estimated 15-20 metres at sea and 50 metres at some points after hitting the shore. The number of casualties due to tsunamis are magnified as a result of high population densities living on coastlines. Nearly 3 billion people, or almost half the world population, live in coastal zones (Arun 2006) for a variety of reasons including fishing for income and survival, proximity to ports, tourist resorts and a simple fact that most cities were historically built on the coastlines.

Without an adequate warning system coastline populations are at the most risk as they would have little or no warning of the tsunami approaching. Coastlines are usually completely washed away, boats are destroyed and people may not have enough time to find higher ground. In Thailand, the sudden withdrawal of the sea was the only indication that a tsunami was coming whereas in Sri Lanka, the huge wave would have been the first thing they saw (Cummins and Leonard, 2005).

Tsunamis become disasters when they result in destruction of infrastructure and property in built-up areas, affecting the lives of the human population. Despite having a substantially lower number of casualties, the Tohoku disaster caused extensive damage. Large areas of coastline were completely washed away, villages were erased (Conder et al. , 2012) and those homes that survived will face many issues, such as flooding and structural damage. Reconstruction estimates have been as much as $310 billion (BBC News, 2011).

Likewise, the South Asia tsunami caused damage to roads, bridges, water and electricity supplies, destroying health centres and schools. For developing nations in South Asia destruction to infrastructure has a more damaging effect than in developed countries due to limited financial capacity to rebuild. The landscape was altered unrecognisably, with large areas of coastlines washed away and some landmarks shifted to new locations. Debris and waste were widely scattered and farmland and underground water supplies flooded (Global Education, 2009).

According to Grossman (2012), the large amount of the estimated 25 million tons of debris caused by both the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami washed away into the sea could hit the Hawaiian Islands and have catastrophic consequences, such as damage to the reefs and beaches that are homes of many indigenous species. The Tohoku tsunami resulted in the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident with three reactors melting down: the largest nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster (Kyutoku et al. , 2012).

Officials from the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency reported that radiation levels inside and outside the plant were up to 1,000 times and 8 times normal levels respectively (Tabuchi and Walk, 2011). The reactors of the nuclear plant sustained major damage to the cooling system meaning that radioactive isotopes were released into the air, ultimately leading to contamination of soil, water and food. Radioactive chemicals were found in tap water in many cities, as well as in the soil and food products (Hur, 2011).

Damage and destruction of water treatment and sewage systems increase the likelihood of outbreaks of cholera and typhoid, although outbreaks are less likely to occur in developed countries (Conder et al. , 2012). Due to radioactive poisoning, affected areas faced food and water shortages, electricity failure resulted in large amounts of rotting food in warehouses and damage to transportation routes made food delivery problematic in those days immediately following the disaster (Makinen, 2011).

The largest continuing food safety concerns relate to radiological contamination of both land and sea. Radiation levels exceeding legal limits were found in milk and certain vegetables in areas as far away as 120 km from the Fukushima plant (Hur, 2011; IAEA, 2011d; Olsen & McDonald,2011). Following the Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami, a nuclear emergency was declared. This was the first time a nuclear emergency had been declared in Japan, and 140,000 residents within 20km of the plant were evacuated.

These people lost their homes. The tsunami heavily impacted Japan’s major industry and export: the fishing industry. Several fishing villages were destroyed, thousands of coastal fishing vessels were lost (Ydstie, 2011) with a total of 319 fishing ports, about 10% of Japan’s fishing ports damaged (Takahiro, 2011). Radioactive contamination of sea water is also a concern, given the contamination of seafood, with sand lance already found to contain elevated levels of contamination (IAEA, 2011).

Not only did radioactive waste water leak directly from the damaged reactor to the sea for several days (Brumfiel, 2011), but the immediate need to cool down the damaged reactor quickly resulted in deliberate dumping of 10,000 tons of radioactive waste water into the ocean (Butler, 2011). The predominant wind direction also carried airborne radioactive contamination out to sea. The contaminated seawater dumped into the ocean may lead to radioactive bioaccumulation in fish and shrimp, which if eaten by local residents, may lead to increased human radiation exposure (Friis, 2007).

Rice farms in the Sendai area providing approximately 8% of Japan’s rice production (Alabastor, 2011) have also been affected. The tsunami caused extensive damage to agricultural land and facilities, (Johnson, 2011) where hogs, dairy and beef cattle are raised alongside crops that include rice and a variety of vegetables. The Tohoku tsunami resulted in widespread infrastructure destruction, loss of life and environmental contamination. Perhaps the longest-lasting impact of the disaster will be felt from the damage to the nuclear power plants along the coast and the subsequent release of radioactive elements into the environment.

The impacts were both immediate and local as they related to loss of life, injuries sustained during the disaster, displacement due to building damage, and food and water shortages. In addition, the disaster will continue to have long-term environmental impacts due to 30-year long half-life of radioactive Caesium isotope – the impact reaching beyond the immediate destruction zones, particularly as they relate to radioactive contamination. The poorest countries of South Asia were the most affected by the tsunami: these were Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.

Other than lacking an adequate warning system, these countries also did not have any type of acceptable emergency shelters, were in shortage of hospitals, medicines and emergency food supplies. The wounded died from untreated infections, hunger and depression. The tsunami has washed parts of coastline communities away leaving the survivors in devastation. Agricultural crops were flooded, fertile soil was salinized leading to large segments of the population losing their homes, lifetime assets, savings, and sources of livelihood. About 7% of the population is now living in temporary shelters or with relatives (China Daily, 2009)

The two main industries affected by the South Asia tsunami were fishing and tourism (Gunatillake, 2007). Fishing communities have lost their ability to generate income as well as boats and fishing gear. In recent years the fishing industry has become a major export, generating significant foreign exchange earnings. Preliminary estimates indicate that 66% of the fishing fleet and industrial infrastructure in coastal regions have been destroyed by the wave surges, which will have adverse economic effects both at local and national levels (Staff Writer, 2005).

The smaller economies of the Maldives and Sri Lanka are dependent on tourism and these are the ones affected most. In the Seychelles, where half of the national economy is dependent on tourism, damage is assessed at $30m, which may appear to be a small absolute figure, but is in fact 14% of the government’s national budget. But some economists believe that damage to the affected national economies will be minor because losses in the tourism and fishing industries are a relatively small percentage of the GDP. However, others caution that damage to infrastructure is an overriding factor.

In some areas drinking water supplies and farm fields may have been contaminated for years by salt water from the ocean (Pearce, 2005). Even though only coastal regions were directly affected by the waters of the tsunami, the indirect effects have spread to inland provinces as well. The tsunami may have affected shipping in the Malacca Straits, where water depths are now only 100 feet in some areas, making shipping impossible and dangerous. These problems also made the delivery of relief aid more challenging as compiling new navigational charts may take months or years (Staff Writer, 2005).

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