Tsunami Lessons and Challenges

March 7, 2005

The impact of the Indian Ocean tsunami was felt by Rolex Laureates in the region. The natural disaster has presented new challenges for them and their projects.

Baby Heru had a brush with death when the fearsome tsunami waves smashed his hometown of Meulaboh, in Aceh, Indonesia, on 26 December last year. Weeks later, the eight-month-old boy was again fighting for his life — this time with severe burns in a Singapore hospital, after a sibling accidentally upset a crude kerosene lamp into the cot.

In Singapore, Professor Tommy Koh was deeply upset by Heru’s plight and by his needless suffering. The dangerous lamp had apparently been sent to Indonesia in a shipment from an aid agency trying to help those who had no lighting because their houses — and electrical supplies — had been destroyed or severely damaged by the tsunami.

The renowned jurist and diplomat had read about the infant in Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper — and he knew such accidents are preventable.

Shedding Light on a Solution
Professor Koh, a member of the Rolex Awards Selection Committee in 1996 and again for the current Awards series, had recently read an article in The Rolex Awards Journal about a Sri Lankan doctor who has developed an accident-proof lamp that is preventing the loss of thousands of lives and sparing many more from lifelong disfigurement. Heavy and squat with two flat sides, a screw-on lid and almost unbreakable glass, the lamp has been described as “99.9 per cent safe”.

Koh immediately sent a letter to the editor of the Straits Times, urging him to bring the lamp to the public’s attention. On 6 February, the Sunday Times, sister paper of the Straits Times, published an article about Heru and the safe lamp. The newspaper reported that the lamp was about to become more widely known, partly thanks to interest from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Challenges After the Tsunami
In Sri Lanka, Wijaya Godakumbura — producer of the lamp, which won him a Rolex Award in 1998 — was grappling with the impact of the tsunami on his own project to provide safe lamps to countless homes across his country. Like the tsunami itself, the effects had been unpredictable — a huge surge in demand for safe lamps from aid agencies in the wake of the destruction, which his small operation could hardly meet.

“One NGO [non-governmental organisation] wanted 200,000 lamps immediately, which is three times what we distributed in the last three years. Unfortunately there had been a breakdown in the furnace of the glass factory four weeks before the tsunami — and stocks [had run out] when the tsunami did the damage,” Godakumbura says. After repairs, the glass factory was back in business by the end of January, churning out new lamps for devastated areas with no other lighting.

Godakumbura expressed his sadness over the news that a member of the board that supports the Safe Lamp project had lost his brother and family — they were on holiday at the time and have not been found.

The tsunami also disrupted Dr Godakumbura’s plans for a promotional campaign in which he intended to approach the Sri Lankan prime minister, Mahinda Rajapakse, for support to purchase more safe lamps for poor homes.

“Surgeons had treated some burns victims at a hospital in his electorate and I thought he would be receptive. After the tsunami, everybody was very busy. They had other priorities,” he says, noting that, in recovering from a disaster, cheap, safe lamps are a primary necessity.

Looking Ahead
Many of the Rolex Laureates have echoed calls for a tsunami early-warning system to be installed in the Indian Ocean as soon as possible, to reduce the damage from such events. Oceanologist and Rolex Awards Selection Committee member in 2002, Professor Anatoly Sagalevitch, in Russia, says that the most dangerous places, from the point of tsunami risk, are clearly those tectonic plate boundaries which have been silent for decades — where gigantic forces may have built up unrelentingly. “It is necessary to develop a network of seismic stations on the ocean bed [at these boundaries] and collect the information from them for computer analysis. This is the only way to forecast the [plate] collisions and earthquake risk in the active zone of the ocean floor.”

Between them, the Rolex Laureates reflect the essential optimism and determination that characterise their projects — a conviction that, from the challenges presented by tragedy and destruction, good things can come.

Learn more about Wijaya Godakumbura

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