A Publication for the faculty, staff, administrators and friends of California State University, Chico
Feb. 10, 2005 Volume 35 / Number 5

Page One Stories

From Tsunami Tragedy to Sustainable Development: Reflections from Thailand

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 admonition.

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 system.

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.



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