Mar 10, 2005

Indian Ocean Tsunami, climate change



The tsunami that hit on the morning of Boxing Day, 26 December 2004, was a devastating natural event. It registered 9.0 on the Richter scale. Countries right around the Indian Ocean rim, from Indonesia in Asia right across to Somalia in Africa, were affected in a way that was beyond people’s imagination and certainly beyond what anyone could have prepared for or expected. According to the Red Cross, the human devastation as of the beginning of February included some 278,000 dead, some 14,000 missing, over one million people left displaced and over one million left homeless. There were some 230,000 dead in Indonesia alone, our neighbour. Australia was affected very directly by this tragedy, with 21 Australian citizens losing their lives and six more unaccounted for with grave concerns held about whether they have survived this disaster. The impact of the tsunami was such that the island of Phuket in Thailand has shifted 32 centimetres from where it was—an entire island permanently shifted by the earthquake and consequential tsunami.

As the shadow minister for the environment and heritage, I believe that the tsunami following the earthquake was very much a stark reminder of the power of mother nature, the power of natural forces beyond which humankind can have little effect. We can certainly prepare better, and certainly the discussions about the need for early warning systems are very valid, but the tsunami’s impact was such that there would have been some impact no matter what the level of preparation. Indeed, NASA has confirmed in later studies that the waves which flowed across the Indian Ocean were travelling at 800 kilometres per hour as a result of this earthquake. The waves grew from centimetres to 10 metres of water high. That they travelled at 800 kilometres an hour across the ocean is an extraordinary finding. The two waves were 800 kilometres apart. We have read devastating personal accounts of, firstly, when the water receded people going towards the ocean to look at this phenomenon only to lose their lives as a result of the first wave coming and, then, in between the waves, other people thinking that the crisis was over only to be hit by the even more devastating second wave.

The scientific analysis of this event will continue over a considerable period of time. Hopefully we can come up with early warning systems and strategies to alleviate the impact of such an event. In the meantime, I believe if anything positive can be seen to have come out of such a tragedy it is the extraordinary response not the least of which is by this great nation of Australia. I congratulate the government on its decision to contribute $1 billion on behalf of the Australian people. That was a very generous commitment when compared with the contributions of some other nations, but it reflected the concern of the Australian community. In the Australian community we saw extraordinary contributions from individuals right up to government level. We saw the tsunami cricket match, which raised some $14 million. There was the Reach out to Asia telethon, held primarily on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House. There was of course the Wave Aid concert at the Sydney Cricket Ground, in which the member for Kingsford Smith played such a prominent role in re-forming the great iconic band Midnight Oil to play. Many members of parliament on both sides of the chamber had contribution points at their electorate offices. I know that people are still coming into my office contributing to the bucket for the Red Cross.

One very young constituent of mine—she was five years old—contributed her tooth fairy money. It was the only money she had in the world and she wanted to contribute it to the devastated community. For that I thank and acknowledge Alex Coombs of Dulwich Hill for giving up what for her was a very generous contribution of $1. It was all she had, but rather than put it into her money box it went into the tsunami relief box. That reflected the best of the Australian character. I hope it also marks the point at which it reflects, given concerns expressed by many people in this House about events surrounding the Tampa and issues of asylum seekers and where we are placed in the world, the acknowledgement by the Australian people that we are part of Asia. Australians’ generosity towards people of different ethnicity and different religions reflects that that does not matter, that we are all human beings and that we all deserve to be treated with dignity. When someone was in trouble, our great neighbour Indonesia in particular but also Sri Lanka, India and the other nations, we were prepared to kick in, to give a helping hand up.

The Leader of the Labor Party, Kim Beazley, stated in his contribution to this debate that he hoped—and I hope as well—that it would bring to the forefront the issue of poverty in our region. Tony Blair as the president of the EU and chair of the G8 has made his two priorities the Kyoto protocol, climate change and taking action on that, and the alleviation of poverty in Africa. The tsunami has drawn the issue to the forefront in a very stark way, because part of the reason it had such a devastating impact is the undeveloped nature of many of the regions that were hit. The impact will devastate economies such as Aceh’s, where 70 per cent of the fishing fleet has been destroyed. We need to make the issue of poverty and living standards in our region something that is of concern to us every day, not just at a time of tragedy, and that generosity of spirit needs to be constant rather than subject to any single event.

I would like to conclude my remarks by making the point that the tsunami resulting from this earthquake has reminded us of the power of nature and the forces in our natural environment. It was an event we could not do anything about; it was not a human-induced event. For environmental disasters that we can do something about it, that we know are coming, such as climate change in particular, we have a responsibility to take action. It has been predicted by scientists that climate change will result in a rise in sea levels of up to seven metres. If that occurs, many of the low-lying nations hit by the tsunamis will be devastated.

In the Indian Ocean region, the Maldives will simply be under water, as will the Cocos Islands, which are part of our territory, and just as, in the Pacific, Tuvalu will be . One-sixth of Bangladesh’s agricultural production will be gone and 30 million people are expected to be displaced from India. The United States State Department and the Pentagon estimated in a paper the potential for a total of 150 million environmental refugees being created by climate change. With the reminder of the force of the natural environment, we need to be very clear on and very determined as to where we can make a difference. As policy makers in the national parliament we have a particular responsibility and ability to make a difference, so we should not lose any opportunity to do our best to acknowledge the impact that human activity has on our natural environment. I commend the motion to the House and I acknowledge the contribution that the government has made. I believe that this has been the Australian parliament working at its best in a bipartisan way in the interests of Australia and of our neighbours in the Asian region in which we live.