From Tsunami Tragedy to Sustainable Development: Reflections from
Commentary by Barney Hope
The cameras and home videos of Western tourists on Phuket and
Phi Phi islands in southern Thailand recorded a stunning set of
pictures capturing the devastating power of the December 26, 2004
tsunami. These images, media coverage, survivor stories, and Web
blogs paint a vivid picture of the tsunami’s destruction.
By January, the Thais began to conceptualize another picture: what
will the future look like for the tsunami-devastated areas in southern
Thailand? As the initial relief and forensic identification phase
faded, the focus in Thailand shifted to constructing tsunami defenses
and planning for reconstruction.
Within a day of the disaster, Indian Ocean basin countries were
reminded that they lack an early warning tsunami system similar
to the one for Pacific Ocean basin countries. But two early warning
systems are already in place: earthquake tremors and receding water.
In Phuket, an earthquake shaking hotels along the beach provided
the first early warning. Some guests were reassured that there was
nothing to worry about. The global average for earthquakes greater
than 8.0 each year is one a year, and most large earthquakes under
8.0 do not produce a tsunami, and tremors may not be felt thousands
of miles away on distant shores. But ground tremors in coastal areas
constitute an early warning system portending potentially deadly
consequences if ignored. And rapid receding costal water may signal
only seconds to save one’s life by running in the opposite
direction. Many on the beaches failed to recognize this frightening
While the deployment of a Pac-ific basin system would enhance existing
tsunami warnings and potentially save lives, it will be ineffective
if technicians and public officials fail to act or cannot act in
sufficient time. The chief Thai meteorologist was fired for not
disseminating a tsunami warning—before the tsunami struck—based
on incoming seismic data. A high technology early-warning system
would be useless for the more than 250,000 people killed in Indonesia
given the proximity of the earthquake. In Thailand, there are questions
of who will pay for the cost of sea buoys, high-powered computers,
communication links, and technicians required by a Pacific basin
type early-warning system.
High technology is often viewed as an answer when simpler solutions
implemented by social institutions—tsunami education in this
case—is cost effective and appropriate technology. An ideal
early warning system would combine both high and low technology.
While promises were made to fund and deploy an Indian Ocean basic
early-warning system at the Kobe disaster conference in January,
time will tell whether declarations are transformed into a viable
Reconstruction discussions in-clude ideas for tempering future
tsunami inundations with barriers and rebuilding hotels and beach
infrastructure for tourists. Thai critics point out those expensive
human-made barriers may be ineffective in stopping a tsunami, and
will deter tourists from visiting. In an earlier era, mangrove forests—rich
in biodiversity and resources—could provide a natural barrier
to slowing tsunamis in southern Thailand. Areas retaining their
mangrove forests did not experience as much damage and death as
deforested areas. Exten-sive mangrove deforestation in the name
of “development” stripped costal areas of this protection.
Since tourism generates the most foreign exchange of any activity
or product in Thailand, this foreign exchange influences the rate
of deforestation and the type of reconstruction possibilities. As
Thai officials discussed “top-down” plans for devastated
beach areas, it is clear that infrastructure improvements for Western
tourists will prevent small-scale vendors from encroaching on private
property and public places adjacent to beach areas. Such vendors
are part of the extensive “informal” sector in Thailand.
Workers in this sector are entrepreneurial, industrious, and poor.
These workers and those working in low-paying jobs in hotels and
resorts constitute the core labor force for the tourist industry
in southern Thailand. Many migrate from rural poverty in northeast
Thailand, poor areas in southern Thailand, and extreme poverty in
Myanmar. Displaced beach vendors immediately protested their disenfranchised
status in the future picture of “development.” Potentially
more tourist dollars will be captured by large hotel and resort
complexes and displaced workers will be forced to find less attractive
niches elsewhere in the informal sector. Resort complexes will channel
some retained earnings into the local economy, but will transfer
profits to Bangkok banks and financial centers in New York. These
transfers lessen local economic multiplier effects and links: enclave
tourist complexes limit regional development.
The entire discussion about reconstructing tsunami devastated
areas is often framed in terms of reconstruction for “sustainable
development.” Patong beach in Phuket can receive up to 30,000
tourist visits per day during the peak tourist season. While Thais
recognize the infrastructure demands in assimilating so many tourists,
there remain serious issues about mountains of garbage and untreated
sewage generated by tourists. The costs of these problems are referred
to as “externalities” by economists, and such costs
are not fully included in the market pricing system. These problems
were very apparent during a trip I made to Phuket and Phi Phi islands
five years ago. The tourist sector will be reconstructed, but will
the market forces of supply and demand continue to ignore the costs
of deforestation, garbage, and sewage? If reconstruction resources
are allocated for “sustainable development” for the
tourist sector, can northeast Thailand be allocated sufficient resources
for its “sustainable development” to reduce rural poverty?
The tsunami disaster generated immediate relief and recovery responses,
led to discussions about deploying an early warning tsunami system,
and produced a debate about the structure of reconstruction possibilities.
The disaster also spawned questions about development and underdevelopment
in Thailand. How will all of this trans- form Thailand? Hopefully,
future pictures will provide an answer.
Professor Barney Hope (Econo-mics; Asian Studies) is in Thailand
engaged in lecturing and research. Previously, he served as a Peace
Corps volunteer in Thailand and received two Fulbright awards, one
to southern Thailand and one to northeast Thailand.