With the third anniversary of the Asian Tsunami drawing close, we are reliving memories of the mega-disaster that hit many parts of coastal Asia on 26 December 2004.
On 10 October 2007, I wrote the story of Tilly Smith, the 11-year-old English school girl whose geography knowledge helped save hundreds of lives on the Maikhao Beach in Thailand that day.
Here’s another story, which was related by Thyagee de Zoysa, a young Sri Lankan woman who until recently was working as Project Officer of CEE Sri Lanka, a non-profit educational charity that I am associated with.
In January 2007, Thyagee spoke at the European launch of TVE Asia Pacific’s latest environmental television series, The Greenbelt Reports</em>, held in Athens, Greece. There she made a passionate appeal for education and awareness to be put into action.
She drew from her personal experience, having survived the Indian Ocean Tsunami in her native village of Kosgoda in southern Sri Lanka. These are her exact words:
“I, myself, am particularly willing to participate in this project, as I was at my home on the 26th of December 2004, with my parents, until we heard a young man crying ‘Run to the temple, run to the hill, the sea is coming’. We ran — and it saved our lives.
“The young man told me later that he knew that the sea was going to come with full power because of a film that he had seen. A film, which was about a meteorite impact with earth and how a tsunami happens after that. He knew that, if there comes a day when the sea goes back towards the horizon, it then comes back again to take your life.
“It does not matter in what way you create awareness on the environment, be it books, films or the Internet. What matters is that you do it and make somebody understand the possible actions to take up. Believe me, I am grateful to this young man for saving my life and that of my family…”
Neither Thyagee nor the young life-saver could recall the name of the film, but it doesn’t matter. The film left a bit of knowledge in the young man’s mind which surfaced instantly just when it was needed. That helped save lives.
Alas, there were very few Sri Lankans – young or old – who had any idea about tsunamis prior to that fateful Boxing Day 2004.
Writing a foreword to Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book (co-edited by Nalaka Gunawardene and Frederick Noronha), Sir Arthur C Clarke refers to another rare exception: a retired sailor living in the coastal village of Galbokka recognised the tell-tale signs of the on-coming tsunami and rushed the entire community to safety.
The challenge we still face is to build everybody’s awareness on multiple hazards and what to do when hazards turn into disasters.