When the December 2004 tsunami hit the coasts of the Indian Ocean - a process of several minutes - it left deep scars along an immense region that will take years to completely overcome. By definition all affected areas are coastal areas, sometimes only a strip of some 50 meters wide, at places the sea intruded several kilometres into the hinterland. Although not significant to the total arable area of most affected countries ( Indonesia , India , and Sri Lanka ), the severity of the damages, the human death toll and the spatial characteristic of the disaster make that the effects are much wider than the local level. Some countries have sustained little damage in absolute figures, but these represent a high percentage of total agricultural land ( Maldives ). In all countries, local agricultural communities are devastated by the floods and subsequent losses. Recovery prospects vary widely for different areas, mainly determined by the damages and the local capacity to recover from the disaster. Figures presented in this table are aggregates of FAO damage assessments and predictions, based on an estimation of the recovery capacity.
Initial Damage Classification
Not all areas sustained similar damages. The FAO Land Damage Classification identified 4 classes of damage:
- Minor damage; return to normal without major interventions
- Medium damage; return dependent on specific interventions
- High damage; C1 return only possible with major interventions; C2 return to agriculture not possible/desirable. Other land options should be considered
- Land completely lost to the sea after the tsunami.
If B and C1 (medium to heavy damage) and C2 and D (lost for agriculture) totals for all categories are quite equally spread over the three categories (A - B/C1 - C2/D). This is important information to steer regional rehabilitation strategies, as these are quite different in focus for these three categories. For Category A the main focus is to restore the pre-tsunami situation (if that has not happened already). The same applies to B, C1 where cash-for-work programmes are necessary to recover agricultural infrastructure and leach out salts. For C1 specialized contractors should be contracted for major rehabilitation work. In category C2/D rehabilitation strategies need to focus on compensation of farmers, change of livelihood basis, relocation of farming families, etc.
Differential impacts, in extent and in severity of the damage
The categories are not equally spread over the countries, however. West Aceh and the Andaman/Nicobar islands received the full blow over their relatively flat coastal belts, while more distant or more sloping coasts have suffered fewer damages. The agricultural sector in West Aceh was by far the hardest hit, both in total damaged area as in severity of the damages sustained. West Aceh alone accounts for half of the total affected area and for more than 70% of damage in Category C2/D. In comparison, the east coast of Aceh was far less affected (mostly because it was not exposed to the direct impact of the waves).
The Indian islands (Andaman and Nicobar) were, like West Aceh , very close to the epicentre of the earthquake and impact of the damage is similar to that of West Aceh . The Indian islands and Aceh have permanently lost land to the sea as they appear to have tilted as a direct result of the earthquake. The mainland of India was further away and suffered damages over a long stretch of its eastern coast, mainly in Tamil Nadu and Andra Pradesh. The severity of the damage is less than in Aceh and the islands.
The island of Sri Lanka suffered from the tsunami from the South-West to the far north (and thus not only on the eastern side). Although total damage to agricultural lands is relatively low and most agricultural lands are expected to be rehabilitated soon, coastal communities are devastated, also because their main source of income, fishery, has been heavily struck.
Damage to agriculture in the Maldives is minor in absolute terms. But because of the low elevation (1-1,5 meters above sea level) the country was extremely vulnerable to the waves. The waves swept over large parts of the islands, causing destruction on their way. A large percentage of the agricultural lands have been affected. Because of good drainage and low reliance on equipments and irrigation infrastructure the severity of the damage to agriculture is relatively low. Damage to agriculture was minor in Thailand as well. 80% of the affected area consisted of tree plantations, as more intensive agriculture (paddy, vegetables) is located further away from the coast. Most water drained back to the sea quite rapidly. In Myanmar no damages to agriculture were reported, although fisheries were affected. The possible explanation is that the tsunami did not develop so much in a northern direction and that the coast was protected by a belt of Mangrove-forests.
Differences in resilience determine the recovery path
The speed of recovery depends on several factors. The extent and intensity of the damage determines the length of the road ahead. The resilience of the system determines the speed of travelling along that road. The resilience (or the capacity to recover) is determined by the human capacity to cope with the damages sustained as well as the environmental factors and the state of the infrastructure needed for land reclamation. Where environmental factors are favorable and infrastructure (irrigation and drainage canals, roads, markets, storage facilities, etc) were in place and not destructed by the tsunami many of the pre-conditions for recovery are met. If communities are organised and support systems are in place the human capacity to cope and recover from the tragedy will enhance the regeneration of a thriving agricultural coastal belt. Where these capacities were non-existent before, or heavily disturbed by the tsunami, resilience is low and the recovery trajectory longer.
Resilience makes a difference for salinity
In the case of salinity, for example, the extent of damage is determined by the amount and type of saline sediments, time of inundation, soil type, etc. The resilience is dependent on the occurrence of high precipitation or else the availability of irrigation canals and a drainage system to leach out the soils. Similar damages may need different trajectories because of the variety in inherent capacity to recover from these damages.
Recovery is only expected for lands of categories A, B and C1. The other lands are permanently lost and other uses for the lands must be considered. The table below presents the salinity recovery figures and estimation for end of May (when main monsoons have started in most of the region).
As can be concluded from the table, salinity problems diminished quickly after the tsunami. Critical factors were the occurrence of significant rains and the availability of irrigation water where no rain occurred. In the relatively wet western coast of Aceh where damages are high, all salinity problems are expected to have disappeared at the end of May. Problems are more persistent precisely in those areas where rainfall is low or erratic and irrigation facilities are not present. This refers to areas in the Indian Mainland, North-East Sri Lanka and East Aceh . In pockets where irrigation water cannot be provided salinity levels will remain high until they are eventually leached by precipitation. Where there is irrigation, farmers are back to production however, because these regions did not suffer very high damages. The uncleared area (class A,B,C1) has been diminished by three-fourths as far as salinity is concerned. This warrants the overall conclusion that the region was quite capable of dealing with the salinity problems.
Positive figures on salinity should not lure us into believing the recovery path is travelled
In heavily affected regions (like West-Aceh) recovery from salinity does not mean that the farming system has been rehabilitated. Lands need to be cleared from high sediment loads and debris, fields need to be repaired and most importantly, access and support systems need to be restored so that farmers can have access to necessary inputs, sell their products, etc. Especially for the worst hit areas the rate of recovery to normal remains difficult to determine. Until now, many areas are hardly accessible, farming communities have not yet settled after being evicted from their homesteads. Some of the more intangible elements, like community and capacity building, will require continued attention for a prolonged time. In cases where return to pre-tsunami situations is unattainable or undesirable diversification and integrated coastal zone management are currently developed and will be implemented. Time-frames for these interventions are in the order of years, however. In other areas (generally A, B, C1, representing two-thirds of the total) return to (relatively) normal is expected before the end of this growing season, provided resilience is strong enough to overcome the problems in these areas.