Tsunami two years on: Swamped by deceit

On the second anniversary of the disaster, millions in aid and a working warning system have failed to arrive. And two-thirds of the displaced are still homeless
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The Independent Online

Two years after the Boxing Day tsunami - which killed 230,000 people around the Indian Ocean - the area is still unprepared for a repeat, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Only a fraction of thenumber of hi-tech buoys and sea-level gauges designed to give early warning against a new catastrophe are in place, even though geologists warn that it could happen at any time. And most countries in the area are not sufficiently prepared to get an alarm out to coasts and beaches.

At the same time, many millions of pounds in foreign aid, promised by governments to the disaster-hit areas, have not been paid. And only a third of those made homeless two years ago have so far been rehoused.

Experts say that countless lives would have been saved from the tsunami - the worst natural catastrophe in modern times - if the Indian Ocean had had a tsunami early-warning system, like one that has been successfully operating in the Pacific for more than 35 years. Unesco and other UN bodies had been urging the countries of the area to set one up for years, but their pleas were disregarded because it would be expensive, and there had not been a killer wave in the ocean for a century.

Immediately after the disaster, shocked governments agreed to establish a system based on buoys that would detect a tsunami out at sea, and sea-level gauges that would send out an alarm when it first hit land. But they then delayed taking action until after a second earthquake hit the same area three months later.

Even now, says Unesco, only five of the projected 16 buoys, and only 27 of the planned 50 gauges, have been installed. Governments around the ocean have not yet agreed fully to share information on an approaching tsunami, and few have adequate ways of getting warnings out to the people most at risk.

The best-prepared country is Sri Lanka, one of those worst hit two years ago, which has a system of transmitting warnings through its police stations. And Thailand - which was criticised after the tsunami for failing to pass on warnings, allegedly because it feared damaging its tourist industry - has set up a national disaster-warning centre, built watch towers along its coast, and drawn up a community-based evacuation plan.

But in the most devastated area of all, the Indonesian province of Aceh, just one watchtower has been built, and local sources say that nobody knows how it is supposed to work.

Unesco is working with other governments to install warning systems, but Patricio Bernal, executive director of its Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, says that many of their priorities have shifted, as the disaster has receded, to more immediate concerns such as providing healthcare and schooling to their people. "There is a long way to go," he says.

Aid-giving countries have also dragged their feet, as public attention has faded. Britain, which promised £65m to the World Bank-run Multi-Donor Trust Fund for Aceh and Nias, has so far delivered about one-fifth of it. China offered $138m to Sri Lanka, but has provided little more than $1m, while Kuwait has reportedly handed over none of the $13m it offered the Maldives.

Tough questions are also being asked of what aid agencies have been doing with the money they received for tsunami-struck communities that are still grappling with an acute lack of basic amenities. Former US president Bill Clinton, the UN's tsunami envoy, says that only 30 to 35 per cent of people displaced by the disaster have been rehoused, and added: "We have to do better than that."

In Aceh, some 70,000 people are still crammed - whole families to a single room - into reeking barracks that were built as temporary shelters, with inadequate provision for sanitation.

Professor John McCloskey of the University of Ulster, one of the world's leading authorities, says that another major earthquake will certainly occur near the Indonesian island of Sumatra - the site of the one that caused the tsunami - the only uncertainty being when. People in Aceh were forcefully reminded of the risks last week, when a major tremor sent them scurrying from their homes.

The Tourist: 'It's always very tough at this time of year'

Nigel Willgrass, 45, was driving his family to the beach in Phuket, Thailand, when his wife Louise got out to buy some sun cream. The tsunami swept Mr Willgrass and his four children, Emily, 18, Ben, 16, Michael, 11, and Katie, nearly 1km inland in their car. The body of Mrs Willgrass, 43, was found in a hospital mortuary

This is always a strange time of year. It's very tough not having Louise with us on Christmas Day. We'll make the best of it. All kids love opening presents, but I know they will be sad.

One way we have coped was by setting up the charity [the Louise Willgrass Tsunami Fund]. The Thai people were so incredible, and this was a chance to give something back to them. So far we have raised about £750,000 for a school in Phuket. We hope to start building in the spring, and have the school open by summer 2008.

I have been back to Phuket several times. I still find it difficult. This Easter I'm taking the children back for the first time. The two little ones are still very frightened of the sea, so we'll see how it all goes.

Martin Hodgson

The Fisherman: 'Fewer fish - and navy won't let us go to sea'

Seenithambi Krishnamurthi is a fisherman in Kallady, Sri Lanka. Although he and his family survived the tsunami, he lost his nets, and fighting between government forces and Tamil Tiger insurgents stops him going to sea

I have been fishing since I was 16. This is the only work I know. I can't read, but my children went to high school. All three now work in Colombo, and help to support us.

An aid organisation gave me the money to buy a new net, but I don't have my own boat. I borrow one from other fishermen, or hitch a ride with them. But we can only fish in the lagoon, because the navy won't let us go to sea. The situation is not right.

Since the tsunami, there are far fewer fish in the lagoon. Most of the fishermen have left for construction work, which can pay up 1,000 rupees [£5] a day. I only make about 150 rupees a day. Everything depends on chance.

Nachammai Raman

The Hotelier: 'It's pristine, raw, clear, beautiful'

Gregory Anderson is general manager of the Le Meridien beach resort, the biggest hotel on the southern coast of the Thai island of Khao Lak. While some nearby islands experienced nothing more than an unusually high tide, this stretch of Khao Lak took the heaviest pounding from the tsunami, leaving its beaches littered with bodies, including thousands of foreign tourists

Compared with last year, it's much better. The market has come back stronger than we expected. The Scandinavians are coming back, the Germans are big, the British are coming. The Russians will be here in January, the Spanish in August. The number of visitors between June and December was higher than the same months before the tsunami, and so were our revenues.

There's no hesitation on the part of people coming to Khao Lak, the only problem was finding it. Most travel companies chose not to include it in their brochures. These are put together in April and May, and it was just after the first anniversary of the tsunami, and the big ceremonies to commemorate it. There was also concern that the area would be a construction site.

But that's all changing. Physical evidence of the tsunami has mostly disappeared. The jungle has reclaimed the coastline. There's no high-rise building. Khao Lak's greatest asset now is its pristine, raw jungle, its clear waters. It's really beautiful, it's Thailand untouched by mass tourism.

Some visitors are curious about the disaster, but local people don't seem to talk about it much. They see it as a natural disaster and doubt that it will recur. I don't hear any concern about it happening again - or levels of preparedness for dealing with it.

Nick Cumming-Bruce