Archive for the ‘Tsunami’ Category


January 13, 2009


It is needless to say that the tsunami disaster has rocked the world. It was a real ordeal, which has left horrific memories till today. It has erased people and buildings from the villages and lands. It has ushered in an atmosphere of panic into the world, on December 26, 2004, during the joyous season of Christmas. Already eighth months have rolled on… Yet, while the work of rehabilitation continues, also the scar of the tragedy still persists.

Panic still prevails, while reconstruction work is going on. There have been more minor (and not so minor) earthquakes, even on July 24 and August 13, reminding us to be on our toes… The sword of Damocles is still hanging on us…

We have to be aware of the Mother Nature, with whom we are one. Once at the end of a Biblical Course given by me to novices in a Convent, the Superior was wondering why I referred to the extraction of sand dunes and ecological destruction… It is high time that we get acquainted with eco-theology and get out from the ivory tower before we may be flung off the convents and monasteries…

In this environment, I intend to recall scientific data on tsunami phenomenon—which has been part and parcel of our conversation and scientific studies (following the interdisciplinary approach, I had also to revise and deepen my own knowledge of Geography, with all the risks and dangers of dilettantism)– and theological reflections on the suffering of the people, who have lost their property and their near and dear ones, in order to be reminded again and again of our eco-responsibility.

1.1: Scientific Explanation:

The Phenomenon:

What is tsunami? Tsunami (tsoo-nah’-mee, from Japanese words, represented by two characters, the top character “tsu, “harbour”, while the bottom is “nami”, “wave”) is a series of massive ocean waves (or speeding walls of water), generated in a body of water by an impulsive disturbance that vertically displaces the water column. The phenomenon we call tsunami is a series of large waves of extremely long wavelength and period usually generated by a violent, impulsive undersea disturbance or activity, near the coast or in the ocean.  When a sudden displacement of a large volume of water occurs, or if the sea floor is suddenly raised or dropped by an earthquake, big tsunami waves can be formed by forces of gravity. The waves travel out of the area of origin and can be extremely dangerous and damaging when they reach the shore.   Often the expression, “seismic or tidal sea wave“, is used by the scientific community and by the general public, respectively, in order to describe the same phenomenon. However, the term is a misnomer, because tsunami waves can be generated also by non-seismic disturbances, such as volcanic eruptions or underwater landslides, and have physical characteristics different from tidal waves. The tsunami has nothing in common with normal wind-driven sea waves and tides. Tidal waves, caused by large storms at sea, are called storm surges. The size of a storm surge depends on the wind velocity, the duration of the storm, the sea distance over which the wind blows, and the barometric pressure. Storm surges are especially destructive, if they hit the shoreline during high tide. Astronomical tide is the rise and fall of large expanses of water, on a definite time schedule, generated by the gravitational pull of the moon, or the sun, or the planets. Thus, the Japanese word “tsunami“, meaning “harbour wave” is the correct, official and all-inclusive term. It has been internationally adopted, because it covers all forms of impulsive wave generation. It is called tsunami in geological parlance, because a wave train breaks itself at the harbour and is lifted from five to ten or even thirty metres high. It can be generated by earthquakes, volcano eruptions, explosions, underwater landslides, and even the impact of cosmic bodies, such as meteorites and asteroids, on the sea. A tsunami can savagely attack coastlines, causing devastating property damage and loss of life.

Submarine shocks (or under water disturbances), such as earthquake and volcanic eruption, often generate large waves, but not all earthquakes cause tsunami. It takes a magnitude of 7.5 on the Richter scale to produce one. If the intensity increases by 0.5 (say, from 7.5 to 8), the effect (of all earthquakes) will be ten times more. The largest measurable intensity of all earthquakes on Richter scale is 9. Gargantuan tsunami waves can travel at a speed of 1,000 km/hour.

1.2: Its Extension:

The tsunamigenic earthquake, that struck northwest of the Indonesian island of Sumatra (Indonesia) on December 26, 2004, was the strongest in the world for the last 40 years. Although the worst hit were nations to the west of the epicentre—India and Sri Lanka—, the countries in the immediate neighbourhood also suffered its impact of destruction: Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Seychelles, Hong Kong…

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), it is the fourth largest earthquake in the world since 1900, and the largest since the 1964 earthquake in Prince William Sound (Alaska). It was of magnitude 9.15 on the Richter scale, with its epicentre off the west coast of Northern Sumatra (3.3 deg. N, 95.78 deg. E) and at 10 km depth. The quake occurred at 00.59 hours Coordinated Universal Time (UTC-same as Greenwich Mean Time or GMT). The location is 250 km south-southeast from Banda Aceh, Sumatra, 1,260 km south-southwest of Bangkok, and 1,605 km northwest of Jakarta. According to official reports, thousands of people lost their lives, of whom one-third are children.

The eastern Indian coast in Tamil Nadu is about 2,000 km from the epicentre. The wave appears to have hit Cuddalore first, barely one and a half hours after the event. That makes the tsunami that hit the Indian coast to be an extremely fast one, with a speed of about 900 km/hr. In Tamil Nadu more than 106 villages were affected, 984,564 people were affected, 8,012 people lost their lives, 126,182 houses and huts were destroyed. It left a trail of destruction also in the Andaman and Nicobar, Pondicherry, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.

The Andaman region itself is seismically very active–the earliest recorded tsunamis on the eastern Indian coast are, in fact, because of Subduction events off the Car Nicobar island. The first in that area was on December 31, 1881, which had a magnitude of at least 7.5; a more recent tsunami event in the same area is that of June 26, 1941, which had a magnitude of at least 8.5.

The catastrophic tsunami hit Sri Lanka, the pearl of the Indian Ocean, and killed around 40,000 people, displaced nearly one million people, having lost their houses, belongings, property, and livelihood, swept away motor roads and railway tracks, destroyed the town of Galle (the Calvinist stronghold at the time of Venerable Father Joseph Vaas), and gravely damaged Batticaloa.

The tsunami struck Phuket island just after 10 a.m., when Christmas revellers were just starting to surface. About 70 divers, who were exploring the famed Emerald Caves, were plucked to safety after the first couple of waves struck. The more remote Phi Phi islands, where the film The Beach was filmed, were hit even more badly than Phuket. Most of the fatalities in Malaysia were people swimming and jet-skiing off beaches on the island of Penang, who were struck by the tsunami.

It is on records that there was a tsunami to strike the state of Hawai’i on May 23, 1960, generated from an 8.3 earthquake in Chile. Much of the damage occurred in Hilo Town, Hawai’i, where 61 people were killed, 537 buildings destroyed, and damages totalled over dollars 23 million. A Notice Board in a Beach Hotel read as follows:

“In case of tidal wave, Rule 1—Stay calm; Rule 2—Pay Hotel Bill; and Rule 3—Run like Hell”.

2.1: Theories of Tsunami Phenomenon:

The earth is a huge sphere-ball (rather like a pear), of which the surface is made up of rock, soil, and water. It is surrounded by air. It is one of nine (or today ten, the last one, being a minor planet 17095, discovered by the linear programme of MIT Lincoln Laboratory in the USA, and named as ‘Mahadik Planet’, after an Indian student, Bhushan Mahadik) spinning planets, that travel around the sun through space along paths, called orbits. The Sun is a star, one of billions of stars that make a galaxy: Milky Way Galaxy (Via Lactea). The Milky Way and billions of other galaxies, together with huge amounts of gas and dust scattered through space, make up the Universe. The earth is about 150 million kilometers from the sun. We enjoy sun’s warmth, light, and water for life. All life on the earth is found on and above a skin-like crust, made of rock. The crust lies under the land and water (the earth’s surface). Beneath the crust, the earth is a hot, lifeless ball of rock and metal. It is always moving—it spins like a top around its axis (giving rise to day and night), travels around the sun at the same time (giving rise to seasons), and moves through the Milky Way with the rest of the solar systems. Water covers about seventy per cent of the earth, whereas land covers only about thirty per cent. Changes in the earth’s crust can be explained by the theory of plate tectonics.

2.2: a) Theory of Plate Tectonics:

According to the theory of plate tectonics, the outer shell of the earth (lithosphere) is divided into about fifteen rigid (seven large and about as many smaller) plates. The theory of plates includes not only the Earth’s solid upper crust, but also parts of the denser, partially molten rock in the mantle below, called Asthenosphere. The plates carry the continents and oceans on their backs like mammoth rafts. With an average thickness of 100 km, the plates float on the Asthenosphere, and move continuously against one another at a rate of up to 20 cm a year. Continents form only a part of the plates, the surrounding oceans form the rest of the plates. It is the plates containing both continents and oceans that move. The relation of inter-plate movement is defined by the type of plate margin: constructive, destructive or conservative. Destructive force is found on all sides of the Pacific Ocean, as the various plates slide down beneath the surrounding lithosphere.

As the plates move, they carry the continents and the ocean floor with them. In other words, not only the continents are in motion, but the oceans as well, because the top crust of the Earth is not a complete single shell of granite and basalt, but a mosaic of several rigid segments. They move in three different ways: a)away from each other; b)toward each other; or c)past each other. Different movements of the plates have different effects on the sea-bed and the continents. They can trigger volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, as well as build mountains. They can reshape the earth’s crust and change the morphology of the earth.

The “shallow thrust-type” earthquake, according to the USGS, occurred at the interface between the Indian and Burmese tectonic plates. In this region, the circum-Pacific belt (called also “Ring of Fire”) accounts for more than three-fourths of the world’s earthquakes, whereas other quakes occur in the Alpide belt, which cuts across Europe and Asia from Burma to Southern Europe and North Africa. Off the west coast of northern Sumatra, the Indian plate moves in a northeastward direction at about 5 cm. a year relative to the Burmese plate. According to USGS, preliminary locations of larger aftershocks show that approximately 1,000 km. of plate boundary dipped as a result of the main Sumatra earthquake.

In the Subduction zone, tectonic plates converge towards each other, the plate with heavier oceanic material, dives beneath the other, with lighter continental material. When the tectonic earthquake occurs beneath the sea, the sea floor abruptly deforms and, like the swimming spring-board, vertically displaces the overlying water from its equilibrium position, waves are formed as the displaced water mass, which acts under the influence of gravity, attempts to regain its equilibrium (centripetal force). From the source area, where the initial water surface profile changes, the subsequent wave is propagated away (centrifugal force). When large areas of the sea floor elevate or subside, a tsunami is created.

The potential energy of displacement is converted into the kinetic energy of horizontal motion. Unlike tidal wave, a tsunami extends deep down into the ocean waters, that is, a tsunami crest is just the very tip of a very vast mass of water in motion. Within several minutes of the quake, the initial tsunami will split into one that travels out to the deep ocean (distant tsunami) and another that travels towards the nearby coast (local tsunami).

As the waves travel over the near shore region, a tsunami ‘run-up’ occurs (‘run-up’ is a measure of the height of water observed on shore above the mean sea level [MSL]). Tsunamis do not result in creaking waves like the normal surf waves on a beach. They come in like very powerful and fast local rises in sea level, and travel much farther inland than normal waves. Much of the damage inflicted by tsunamis is on account of strong currents and floating debris. After run-up, part of the tsunami energy is reflected back to the open ocean. The height above the mean sea level (MSL) of the two oppositely travelling tsunamis is about half that of the original tsunami. The speed, at which both travel, varies as the square root of the water depth. Therefore, deep ocean tsunamis travel faster than local tsunamis.

Because the momentum of the tsunami is so great, it can travel great distances with little loss of energy. The 1990 Chilean tsunami had enough force to travel for 22 hours across thousands of kilometres to kill people in Japan. As the tsunamis (both local and distant) approach the shallow coastal waters, their wavelength decreases and the amplitude increases several-fold. As the waves hit against the slope of the coastline, the long waves pile on one another, and the wavelength is reduced, while the amplitude increases.

Moreover, a tsunami can generate a particular type of waves, called edge waves, which travel back and forth, parallel to the shore. The geometry of the seafloor, warping near the coast, has a significant influence on them. These effects result in repetitive arrivals of the tsunami waves at a particular point on the coast rather than a single wave. Because of the complicated behaviour of the phenomenon of the waves near the coast, the first run-up of a tsunami is often not the largest, emphasizing the importance of not returning to the beach for several hours after a tsunami hits. In certain cases, the sea can seem to draw a breath and empty the coast. This is almost immediately followed by a wall of water, inundating the coast, as it was noticed in Phuket by a 13-year-old English girl, who saved with her observation her family and many more…

The theory of plate tectonics explains both continental drift and sea-floor spreading. This theory also helps explain the location of mountains and volcanoes, and the occurrence of earthquakes.

2.4: b) Theory of Continental Drift:

The continents plough through the oceans like massive ships. In his book, The Origin of Continents and Oceans, published in 1915, the German scientist, Alfred Wegener (1880-1930), advanced the theory of Continental Drift. He theorized that the changes on the Earth surface were mainly due to the shifting of continents.

According to the theory of continental drift, the continents originally consisted of a single great land mass surrounded by one ocean. The mass broke up into continents, which slowly drifted apart. The theory explains why the shape of the eastern coast of the Americas and that of the western coast of Africa seem to fit together, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Interestingly, new oceans, including the Atlantic and the Indian oceans, resulted from the drift of the continents.

At first, several scientists rejected the continental drift theory, because no one could explain what forces might move continents. Then, later on, a theory called sea-floor spreading came to the rescue.

2.5: c) Theory of Sea-Spreading:

According to the theory, the sea-floor itself never moves, carrying the continents along. Circulating movements deep within the earth’s mantle (that is, the thick layer of hot melted rock beneath the earth’s crust) make the sea-floor move. The circulating movements carry melted rock up to the mid-ocean ridges and force it into the central valleys of the ridges. As the melted rock cools and hardens, it forms new sea-floor and pushes the old floor and the continents away from the ridges.

3.1: Eco-concerns and Reconstruction:

We should be aware of the natural, God-given structures and try to preserve them. Coral reefs and mangrove forests act as walls blocking soil from entering into the sea (interestingly, in Tamil language these forests are known as ‘forests that control waves’, Alaiathi kadukal). This blocking of soil creates sand dunes, which, in turn, act as sturdy natural coastal barriers, reducing the velocity of waves. But these mangrove forests were destroyed for fuel, shrimp farms, luxury hotels and holiday resorts, ports, salt ponds.

Tsunami has brought also emotional trauma, psychiatric illnesses, and water-borne diseases, like malaria and dengue. People, even children, were crying and running panicky everywhere in search of safety. Some of them were saved, others, drowned… Those who were saved were frantically searching their near and dear ones… Animals may have instinctively felt the forthcoming disaster and run away. Even the geological, topological configuration is changed, the distance between the earth and sun reduced…

There is a need for psychological rehabilitation through counselling of the affected population, rehabilitation of immediate livelihood, ecological restoration, rehabilitation of agriculture, long-term livelihood. Religion and faith will also play a therapeutic role in the traumatic, shattering experience of the people. Work of rehabilitation and reconstruction is going on. In Andaman and Nicobar, out of 579 islands about 28 were inhabited by tribals. Over 70,000 people are displaced. Huge cracks were seen all over the islands. Tribals in deep forests were forced to starve. There were 8,700 casualties (unofficially, 15,000), loss of property, 1,000 crores. Schools were washed away. Pilar Fathers under the guidance of Bishop Aleixo das Neves Dias, SFX, carry on, through NGO’s, the work of reconstruction. In all these tsunami-devastated areas, good Samaritans are working for short-term (relief) and mid-term (temporary shelter, bedding, mosquito nets, basic commodities) and long-term rehabilitation programmes (housing, livelihood re-establishment, community facilities, health care, water, sanitation, schools, counselling, fisheries, agriculture). It is a Herculean task… The work of rescue, relief and rehabilitation will take years to come…

3.0: Theological Reflections:

In the aftermath of the Asian disaster, the credibility of Religion has been challenged by some ‘agnostics’. The frequently asked questions (FAQ), regarding the killer sea waves, are as follows: Why did God allow them? Is tsunami disaster God’s punishment? Could not God shun it, if God is the Lord of the Universe and the Lord of History?

3.1: There are “natural” disasters and calamities, like earthquakes, floods, cyclones, tornadoes, birth handicaps, genetic accidents, diseases associated with old age (Alzheimer, dementia), sometimes with fatal consequences. Tsunami was a “natural disaster”. Could Science predict tsunamis so as to avoid such a plight of the innocent people? We cannot surely stop such disasters from happening, but at least we can reduce the impact wreaked by such disasters. Warning systems are being devised, centres are being established.

3.2: How to cope up with natural disasters and life tragedies? Our reaction can be that of rebellion, or of passivity and resignation. Where is God when it hurts? To be human is to search meaning. Science alone cannot provide that meaning. As we have seen, tsunamis have a scientific explanation. In any case, we have to face reality and do something constructive about human suffering. We are witnessing human fragility, the impotence of sciences, the mystery. We cannot handle it as a problem, it is a mystery… Tsunami havoc reminds us of the frailty and precariousness of human existence. The world is not a finished product. God has entrusted the world to humanity with an unfinished task. We have to handle with care the nature, of which we are stewards. It is a challenge to our humanity.

3.3: Some religious leaders have advanced the explanation of retributive justice, namely that it is God’s punishment for the sins of humanity. But this theory (“religious explanation”) is inadequate explanation. Why should God punish also the innocent people? Sinners punish themselves. “The wages of sin is death” (Rm 5: , cf.Jn ).

3.4: How does the Bible explain calamities? The biblical flood was regarded as a sign of God’s premonition (cf. Gn 6: ; 9: ). Jesus does not accept the explanation of retributive justice, when he healed the blind man (cf. Jn 9: ). He said that the man was not born blind because of his sins, or those of his parents, but for the glory of God”…In the book of Job, we find a rejection of this explanation given by the three friends of Job,…

At a deeper level, we are here in the realm of the Paschal Mystery, the mystery of suffering, of the redemptive value of the Cross. We have to personalize our relationship with the divine “Thou”, merge our pride and self-centredness into humble, trustful faith (cf.Rm 5:11). It comes within the horizon of God’s project. The world is unfinished, we have the task of perfecting it. Human freedom plays a pivotal role in this matter. Through reason and science we have to know the nature, prevent the dangers, cure diseases, invest our energy in the struggle that builds up the world, we build the world and ourselves, collective efforts for a better world, for a fuller, more human and humane life are being expended. We have to struggle to humanize the world. This goes hand in hand with the fight against sin (basically self-centredness). Through sin we “de-create” instead of continuing the work of creation. By overcoming selfishness and pride, it goes towards building our self, so as to strengthen our solidarity, justice and love. The more we divinize ourselves, the more we humanize the Universe. Our hearts were created for God, as St.Augustine puts it: “Lord, you have created us for you, our hearts cannot rest but in you” (Confessions, 1:1). We need self-transcendence.

3.5: God is love (cf.1 Jn 4:8). The disaster has brought the whole world to compassion and solidarity. Creation is a continued work of a loving God. When people are rebuilding life from the rubble, we witness a history of hope and creativity. This calls us to be people of thankfulness and hope. Resurrection is a stepping-stone… We are “Halleluia-people”. This is what creation means: not a once-and-for-all Big Bang, but the continual renewing of the conditions for life in defiance of the powers of darkness or death—this means that there is a struggle at the heart of every creative endeavour. St. Paul speaks of all creation groaning in childbirth (cf.Rm 8:28). We are historical beings. We are witnessing the history of the cosmos as a struggle of becoming and of growth. What we experience now as a senseless destruction may be a part of the mystery of creation in hidden ways. The empathy of the people with victims and the courage of the sufferers to begin living anew bears witness to the power of creativity and hope over death and destruction. We do trust in the ultimate power of God’s love.

His power is expressed in a love that participates in our struggle against death by becoming one of us and dying for us. God loves us, God suffers with us. Thus, we must look for a God, not in the power that moves the world, but in the suffering of the victims and in the love of those who comfort them. This is the human dimension of Christianity, the human face of God”…

Suffering is the most intimate aspect of every human life, and it is inseparable from love. His love is revealed in the Cross of Jesus of Nazareth, in whom God is revealed. This is the only way to cope up with suffering., when we are confronted by the reality of suffering.

3.4: In the era of economic and cultural globalization, globalization of solidarity and love is a must. Nor is suffering cumulative, as if the random deaths of 2,52,000 posed a greater theological problem than the random death of a single person. A mother’s faith would be more challenged by the death of one of her own children than by the deaths of thousands of strangers. What matters is not statistics, but personal stories of love and loss. We do believe in God, yet we are struggling to find an answer to what has happened to the helpless people. We cannot see God, but we can feel his love in various ways…


Tsunami phenomenon remains a challenge for the scientists and a point for reflection and action for the common Man. As Christians, we have an opportunity for faith reflection, for theologizing for the enrichment of our own living and praxis.


Tina BEATTIE, “Where was God?”, The Tablet, January 8, 2005, pp.8-9

R.RAMACHANDRAN, “The Tsunami Phenomenon”, Frontline, vol.22, no.1, January 14, 2005, pp.14-16

Nandkumar KAMAT, Navhind Times, January 3, Monday, 2005

Felix PODIMATTAM, OFM.Cap., “Why would a Good God Allow Suffering?”, ITS 42, 2005, pp.175-211

M.SALAMOLARD, “Le Mal: Dieu responsible et innocent. Reflexions inspirees par A.-Gesche”, Nouvelle Revue Theologique 127, 2005, pp.373-388

Prakash LOUIS, “Displacement and Rehabilitation in Post Tsunami South Asia”, Social Action, vol.55, no.3, July September 2005, pp.318-329

Fr.Jesuino ALMEIDA, SFX, “Tsunami in Andaman and Nicobar Isles”, Fr.Agnelo’s Call, April 2005, pp.1517

*Dr.Ivo da C.Souza