Commentary: Lessons for Japan from Indonesia's tsunami

Special to McClatchy NewspapersMarch 22, 2011 

When I arrived on the scene of the tsunami, I was greeted by an entire horizon filled with splintered bits of human life — huge boats washed up on top of houses three miles from the shore. But it was not the tsunami that struck March 11 in Japan. It was the Great Tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004 that struck the city of Banda Aceh in Indonesia where perhaps 200,000 people were erased from the earth in a matter of minutes.

The death toll in Indonesia dwarfs the current estimates for Japan — likely to be well under 50,000 but still unclear.

That’s because Japan is a wealthy, modern, highly organized society where tsunami warnings blasted across the coastal region within moments of the giant level nine earthquake a few miles offshore under the Pacific Ocean.

The people in Aceh also felt an earthquake under their feet but had no premonition that a giant wave had been spawned by that offshore quake and did not try to evacuate the low-lying areas.

Some three weeks after the tsunami hit, I saw teams of workers hauling 1,000 bodies a day out of the splintered and mud-caked remains of the city.

Since then, the United States and other donor countries have helped set up warning systems in the coastal waters to sound alerts that might have prevented loss of life in Indonesia, which lost up to 220,000 people; Sri Lanka which lost 35,000; India, 18,000; Thailand, 8,000; and a few hundred more in Burma and Somalia. These tsunami warning systems include buoys anchored at sea that register sudden shifts in the sea levels which are then communicated to tsunami warning centers. These in turn alert national emergency systems which trigger warnings by siren, radio station, cell phones and local police.

Many Japanese are alive today because they obeyed such warnings and fled to higher ground.

While visiting the survivors of the 2004 tsunami, I found in Sumatra as well as Sri Lanka that even as the dust settled and the mechanical diggers crunched into the layer of wrecked buildings, that deeper scars remained untreated.

One man burst into tears as he showed me the cement slab that was all that remained of his home. His wife and children were washed away. He was able to escape by hopping on a truck fleeing the advancing wave.

I met a child psychiatrist sent by the Indonesian ministry of health to cope with the problems of children who survived horrible scenes of their loved ones dragged out to sea or crushed before their eyes. They had been playing safe in their home one minute and the next minute saw their world transformed into an apocalypse.

The psychiatrist – along with international specialists in childhood psychological trauma—were training teachers and imams in the emergency relief camps set up for survivors. One imam – he had lost most of his relatives in the tsunami – told me he was learning how to use knowledge of psychology to help people coming to him with panic disorder and post traumatic stress disorder.

The teachers and imams were learning to detect the signs of mental troubles such as persistent sadness, fears, and isolation from others. They learned to get children to remember a time and place when they were happy. To think about those moments and use those thoughts to drive away morbid fears. Finally, the teachers and imams learned to accept there are some problems beyond their ability to cope with and to refer those cases to mental health hospitals.

The mental health of survivors was one of a great many challenges after the Asian Ocean tsunami in 2004. There was also the loss of vital records such as land ownership which led to years of delay in reconstructing roads, schools and houses as many claimed the same piece of land.

In addition, some land was lost forever – washed away by the waves or reshaped into new waterways. All of these problems are likely to emerge as the survivors move from freezing cold shelters back towards their normal lives.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by He can be reached at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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