Sunday, December 26, 2010
Back In The Bay - The Boxing Day Tsunami 6 Years On
The Boxing Day tsunami hit Arugam Bay, on the East coast of Sri Lanka at 8.45am six years ago, taking the lives of 300 people, roughly twenty percent of the community’s population.
Approximately two hours previously an undersea earthquake with a magnitude of between 9.1 and 9.3 had struck off the coast of Sumatra, near Indonesia’s Mentawaii Island chain, and the resulting waves of tsunamis caused devastation across the Indian Ocean. The International community rallied and donated more than US$14 billion for aid and reconstruction.
But how have some of the communities affected by the tsunami bounced back? The list of coastal areas impacted by the tsunamis includes some of the most revered destinations in the surfing world, so it’s inevitable that places that we hold dear to our collective hearts were affected.
It’s six years on, and the small village of Arugam Bay, spread out along the stretch of the bay from the lagoon to the point that draws surfers, seems to be back on track; there’s a new bridge over the lagoon, hotels are doing a brisk trade in the high season and there are multicoloured fishing boats and outriggers pulled up on the berm.
But talk to any fisherman mending nets on the beach and you can tell that the memory still cuts deep…”and then the wave came and everything died” as one man told me.
I didn’t want to dwell too much on the past, but I was interested in the knock on effects and the hangover of this enormous natural disaster years after the international money donating public have moved onto the next cause and the aid agencies and volunteers have moved on. Sri Lanka is an interesting case to look at because of the additional ingredient of a long running civil war which only ended in May of 2009.
There are still piles of rubble and half destroyed buildings stood on their concrete foundations which are destined to remain as reminders. In January 2006 the government, which had been accused of standing by idly and contributing little to the relief effort, enacted the now infamous “100 metre rule” which forbade anybody living within 100 metres of the Indian Ocean from rebuilding their homes on the former site and forcing many fishermen inland away from their boats and the sea. This measure was designed to protect coastal communities from the possibility of more tsunamis however given the right amount of cash in the right hands, there appeared to be loopholes with the result being that many hotels were rebuilt in the same spot, and on many other parts of the coast the whole debacle was seen by locals as a back handed way of acquiring coastal property ripe for development.
The new bridge that crosses the head of the lagoon from Pottuvil to Arugam is very impressive, and should be at a cost of over US$10 million which was stumped up by the US taxpayer. The locals are appreciative, but unsure as to why such a fancy bridge was required in view of the still ongoing reconstruction. Likewise, the wide main road through town (the only road in town) was being resurfaced whilst I visited, and pushed further south. Word was that this resurfacing work was being funded by the Chinese with many holding the cynical suspicion that this was a favour in the bank waiting for the time to come when land rights on the coast further south are opened up. Walking on what remained of the old road surface, I couldn’t quite see the need to re-tarmac it for the second time in six years and shared the local’s suspicions.
It’s not like tuk-tuks cause undue wear and tear.
And I can quite understand the interest. The East coast of Sri Lanka is beautiful, remote and undeveloped in comparison to the West coast, due in large part to the civil war and the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) presence. Army check-points and roadblocks still interrupt the main road and soldiers toting AK47s regularly climb aboard the buses and patrol the beach. It felt odd running up the point in boardshorts with a surfboard past four man armed patrols in combat fatigues with heavy boots sinking into the sand. But with the advent of a tentative peace in May 2009 Sri Lanka is becoming more and more popular and it won’t be long before the East coast pops up on the radar. At the moment the bumpy ten hour bus ride puts off all but surfers and the most determined backpackers but that could easily change.
The only hope is that the locals of Arugam Bay retain their community spirit in the presence of development. Following the Boxing Day Tsunami the government proposed several large hotel complexes to help fast-track the areas recovery which were rejected by the Arugam Bay Tourism Association. It seems that local businesses prefer things the way they are, and want to maintain progress at a home-made and locally led rate. All power to them. At present the village gives you the impression that you’re onto something new despite the fame of the wave breaking on the point for the past twenty plus years, you wouldn’t want to be queuing for set waves with too many more people and there’s a nice atmosphere about the place.
It’s worth remembering that recovery and rebuilding communities, homes and livelihoods takes a lot more time than these natural disasters remain in the consciousness of people around the world for. The memories linger and it takes time for things to return to any semblance of normality, during which it’s all too easy for areas to be opened up for exploitation of their natural beauty and resources by people more shrewd and cunning than they are compassionate.
I’ll end on a nice note though: The story of a friend of mine who arrived in Sri Lanka shortly after the tsunami. He decided not to change his plans and headed to the East coast to see how he could lend a hand and catch some waves in between. With another travelling surfer, he bought a couple of bags of cement and set about building a football pitch for the local kids to provide them with a bit of light hearted respite. They cleared some land, dug holes, stripped big branches which they lashed together and cemented into the ground as goalposts, procured a ball and then gathered a crowd of kids for the inaugural game.
Everybody plays cricket in Sri Lanka.