Asian Tsunami: environmental and humanitarian disaster

Feature story - 10 January, 2005
On December 26 a massive tsunami swept through the Indian Ocean region to become arguably the largest natural disaster in living memory. Questions are now being asked: what are the environmental impacts of this tragedy? Did damaged environments contribute to the extent of the impact? And perhaps most importantly, what can be done to make sure that the long-term welfare of survivors is considered?

Humanitarian and medical aid organised by Medecins Sans Frontieres is being loaded onto the Greenpeace flagship, Rainbow Warrior.

Our flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, is currently assisting the French organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in delivering emergency relief aid. Greenpeace activists have been involved in the relief effort in India, Indonesia, Thailand and elsewhere since December 26. Although we are not an aid organisation, we felt this was the best way we could contribute most effectively. The Rainbow Warrior was already in the region and access to many of the most remote and isolated areas is only possible by ship.

Environmental impacts

Now, we are also beginning to explore the possibilities of contributing to assessments of the environmental impacts caused by the tsunami.

Initial reports indicate that natural ecological systems such as coral reefs, mangroves and wetlands have suffered extensive impacts. Important research facilities for studying and monitoring these environments are reportedly also severely damaged.

This tsunami has highlighted the vulnerability of the sensitive marine environments, such as mangroves, that are the breeding grounds for many marine species and that represent the livelihood of thousands of communities that depend on them for their survival.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) is undertaking a full environmental impact assessment of this natural disaster, and this, in conjunction with the various other initiatives underway, should lead to a good understanding of the scale and extent of the damage.

Redeveloping for the future

It seems that healthy mangroves and coral reefs formed an essential defence against the tsunami. Damage appears to be much worse in areas where these natural defences were destroyed or degraded by shrimp farming and irresponsible coastal development for industry and tourism. Any recovery effort should ensure the conservation and restoration of these vital coastal ecosystems.

From the point of view of the protection of human life in such an extreme event, but also considering the resilience of ecological systems, it is essential that redevelopment proceeds with this in mind.

Of course right now we must give our efforts to those who have suffered in this tragedy. We have and will continue to offer support to MSF during the relief effort.

But as the most urgent needs are met, and the focus falls more clearly upon redevelopment and reconstruction, then we will contribute to recovery efforts to ensure that the approach to reconstruction addresses both short and longer term social and environmental needs.


Read updates from the Rainbow Warrior in our weblog

MSF disaster relief work in the region.

To find out how you can help visit these sites:




Red Cross/Red Crescent

Save the Children

Action Aid

Also on the ground is the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI).

Read more in The Guardian.