Colombo, Disaster Management, Media and Communications

Better Governance: The Biggest Lesson of 2004 Tsunami

On 26 December 2009, we mark the fifth anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, one of the biggest and deadliest disasters in history. It left a trail of destruction across South and Southeast Asia, killing over 225,000 and shattering the lives of millions more.

For many of us in the media and communication sectors, this was the biggest story of our lives. Because the killer waves hit numerous coastal locations in several countries, this disaster’s ‘Ground Zero’ was scattered far and wide. Not even the largest news organisations could see, hear and capture everything. Everyone had to choose.

And not just geographically, but thematically too, the tsunami’s impact was felt across sectors, issues and concerns. That provided both ample scope and many challenges for journalists, aid workers and others who rushed to the multiple scenes of disaster.

Satellite image - Kalutara before & during the tsunami
Satellite image - Kalutara before & during the tsunami

But there was a downside. Because the tsunami’s scale was so vast and its effects spread so wide, no single individual or organisation could comprehend the full picture for months. For many of us in the Indian Ocean rim, culturally unfamiliar with tsunamis, it was as if a Godzilla had stomped through our coasts. Grasping the full, strange phenomenon was hard.

Journalists, professionally trained to hastily produce ‘first drafts of history’, found it a bit like being close to a huge tapestry still being woven: we all absorbed parts of the unfolding complexity. We reported or analysed those elements that held our interest. But we were too close, and too overwhelmed, for much perspective.

Five years on, we can ‘zoom out’ more easily to see the bigger picture. When I do, one overarching factor stands out as the most important and lasting lesson of the tsunami: the need for better governance.

The absence of good governance was at the root of most major stories about the tsunami. It cut across every level in our societies — politics, public institutions, corporate sector, humanitarian agencies, academia and civil society.

Countries affected by 2004 Dec tsunami - graphic courtesy BBC
Countries affected by 2004 Dec tsunami - graphic courtesy BBC

A bagful of lessons

This certainly was the case with three facets of the big story that interested and engaged me for many months.

Early warning: It took a while for the tsunami waves, traversing the Indian Ocean at the speed of a jetliner, to reach India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Yet, in this age of instantaneous telecom and media messaging, coastal residents and holiday makers were caught completely unawares — there was no public warning in most locations. Institutional, technological and systemic bottlenecks combined to produce this monumental failure in communication.

In Sri Lanka, where I live, there was also an internal failure in sharing the breaking news. The tsunami progressively pounded the tear drop-shaped island for nearly four hours, starting on the eastern coast south at around 8.30 am local time, and then gradually spreading north, south and finally west. If only the rest of the island had been alerted soon after the first waves hit, rapid coastal evacuation could have saved many lives elsewhere.

But that simply didn’t happen, and over 40,000 lives were lost — that is nearly half the death toll of 30 years of our (recently ended) civil war packed into one miserable morning. It included some 2,000 killed in the worst railway accident in world history when tsunami waves rammed into a packed train in Peraliya, 95 km south of Colombo. We didn’t hear of any responsible official resigning or being sacked.

Aid deluge: Accountability, a cornerstone of good governance, has also been lacking during the prolonged recovery. Saturation coverage in the global media inspired a massive outpouring of public and private donations to help Asian survivors: between governments and private individuals, a total of US$ 12 billion was pledged (though not all of it was actually paid up). As months passed, we heard many survivor complaints and media reports about neglect, discrimination, mismanagement, waste, excessive bureaucracy and corruption.


No affected country had a perfect record, although some handled the recovery better than others. On the first anniversary, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) issued a report that documented how, flush with unprecedented funds, many aid agencies wasted tsunami money by failing to consult survivors, the United Nations or other relief groups. Three years on, Transparency International said its investigations revealed a gap between the amounts disbursed by foreign aid agencies and what has been spent on relief and recovery projects in Sri Lanka. Over US$500 million in tsunami aid had gone “missing”, the anti-corruption group said. (The figure was disputed by the government.)

Green lessons: In a widely published essay on rebuilding after the tsunami, author, diver and long time resident of Sri Lanka Sir Arthur C Clarke declared: “Nature has spoken loud and clear, and we ignore her at our peril.” He referred to wide-spread coral mining, shrimp farming and unplanned tourism development which made Sri Lanka’s coasts more vulnerable to erosion and tsunamis.

In fact, a few months before the tsunami, Lankan journalist Dilrukshi Handunnetti had written an investigative story on how coastal zone management laws and regulations were being openly flouted by developers. She cautioned that it was a ‘disaster waiting to happen’.

“But little did anyone realise the price coastal communities would have to pay for the greed of a few dozen developers,” she said after the disaster, when interviewed on a South Asian documentary film that I scripted.

Governance as lubricant

Laws, regulations and institutions are necessary, but not sufficient, for good governance. Other ingredients needed to bake that ‘cake’ well include the right to information, adequate public consultation and transparency in decisions and spending. These apply equally to governments, aid agencies and UN organisations.

Foresight is uncommon, but what is the excuse for not being wise in hindsight? For example, Sri Lanka’s new disaster law, adopted within months of the tsunami, has been criticised for its many deficiencies. As Dr Rohan Samarajiva, independent academic and a former telecom regulator, asked at the time: “The question is whether our people will have a few more minutes of warning and a little more knowledge on how to save their lives and those of their loved ones the next time. It may work; we have to hope that it will.”

Four years later, he still remains concerned. “A new disaster act may be a good way to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the tsunami,” he wrote in his organization LIRNEasia’s blog a few weeks ago.

The 2004 tsunami and aftermath underlined the crucial role of good governance in coping with disasters and other humanitarian emergencies. Mega bucks, massive infrastructure and high tech systems alone cannot ensure public safety or create resilience: good governance is the vital ‘lubricant’ that makes everything work well. Without it, we risk slipping back into business as usual, continuing our apathy, greed and short-termism.

This isn’t just a history lesson. As the world prepares for multiple, sustained impacts of global climate change, good governance can be a key plank in how we cope — that is, climate adaptation.

President Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected leader of the Maldives — one of the frontline states already experiencing climate impacts — is emphatic about it. He told me in a recent interview: “Traditionally, we’ve always thought that adaptation represents physical structures –revetments, embankments, breakwaters, etc. But the most important adaptation issue is good governance and, therefore, consolidating democracy is very important for adaptation.”

He added: “When climate changes, and when you start feeling the actual impacts of it, you will be wasting all the resources without a proper governance system.”

As we bow our heads in memory of all who perished and suffered in the tsunami, the words of Spanish philosopher and poet George Santayana reverberate in my mind: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene heads the non-profit foundation TVE Asia Pacific, and initiated Children of Tsunami media project that tracked survivor recovery stories in the four hardest hit countries for one year. He blogs at

  • Sri Lanka’s rule of law system has been devastated by tsunamis, ones which removed the infrastructure needed for good governance. These tsunamis occurred in 1972 and 1978. While it is easy to recognize a natural tsunami, it is difficult to recognize when the same occurs within a society. Therefore, it may even be natural for some to treat such a comparison as an exaggeration.

    Yet, in trying to deal with the consequences of societal destruction caused by the devastation of constitutional and legal infrastructure, it is not enough to talk of good governance in a general sense. When the very foundation of the basic institutions needed for the stability of a society are shaken in a similar manner as nature is shaken by great natural disasters, it is at least necessary to recognize the extent of the devastation, if some meaningful steps are to be taken towards rebuilding what has been lost.

    To illustrate through one example, Sri Lanka’s system of law enforcement through the police service has suffered a tsunami due to the constitutional and political changes in the country. Every aspect of good governance today has been adversely affected by this disaster suffered by the policing system. For example, how can there be elimination of corruption or a free and fair election when there is a bad policing system? How can there be elimination of crime when bad policing prevents the possibility of having good investigations into crimes? Does the independence of the judiciary have much of a meaning when those who suffer wrongs cannot get redress? It is these kinds of problems that the people of Sri Lanka are facing now. Balavarnan Sivakumar, who was drowned by police just off the Bambalapitya sea coast, is the symbol of the fate of every Sri Lankan.

    Perhaps in the present election the Sri Lankan people are for the first time awakening to the recognition of the extent of the crisis they are in. This is not an election about any particular personality. It is about taking the first steps to recover from a disaster. Ultimately, recovery will depend on the collective effort to reconstruct the basic institutions needed for good governance, which are the country’s system of administration of justice and the civil administration. Removing the political obstacles to getting there is only the first step. However, as the Chinese say, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

  • Groundtruth

    The latest news from Transparency International that more than $500 m + is unaccounted for is in itself a tsunami of sorts. Same time it is terrible to read that tsunami victims in the north and east are yet waiting to be rehabilitated against the background information that the tsuanami project is to be wound down. The victims had nothing and are still left destitute on top of the devastating war effects. So where have all the millions of $ gone? Isn’t it obligatory for foreign donors from the point of safeguarding their taxpayer’s money to remind the Sri Lankan Authorities about their obligatory requirement of accountability? Apart from foreign governments isn’t it self obligatory on teh part of the Auditor General to account to the public for all of the monies received on this score, said to be in the region of $2.4b? Quite a tidy sum.


    If I may say so, srilanka´s rule of law system is devastated not only by tsunami by MR administration. Yesterday, I happened to listen to a video in which Samaraweera from opportion challenge him to prove whether he could fulfil let alone 10% of his previous eletion pledges, offering 1 mio rupees if proved to be correct. This Samaraweera whoever the politician he is, would not have gone this far, if MR could prove his work done convicining the general public of the lanka. However, what we here being outside of srilanka is, there has not be a leader of this sort in lanken history, to have abused all the state properties. Also, heard that his Son speaks in the stages as a support to his father. Lanka ´s situation is only comparable to a former Congo african republic today. Abdutions of all type are in function in almost every where in the country. As Sunday leader further reports, numbers of killings of journalists have not been reported this much under any previous regimes. MR is continously singing around the country to further mainpulate the common man, who is far from understading the real truth of the life, to grab their votes. Using state media for his campaign is carried out even much openly than never before. What wonders me is there should be alteast a considerable fraction within in governing party, who can make him clear about the danger before the country, if he governs our motherland in this way. If people will not vote for a change, the country will surely be isolated from international communties as has been the case for Simbabwe, Myanmar and the like countries.

  • Pingback: Water Crises In Egypt | the blog()

  • Pingback: When Worlds Collide #93: After Haiyan: Philippines can learn from Lanka’s mistakes | When Worlds Collide, by Nalaka Gunawardene()