Was the aid worse than the tsunami?

Many Nicobarese regret leaving their homes following the 2004 disaster and now suffer from depression and alcoholism

We have seen the scenario many times: TV news reports a natural disaster in a remote area and the humanitarian aid is marshalled to alleviate the crisis. Unfortunately, in some cases, humanitarian aid worsens rather than improves the situation, often because the aid is culturally inappropriate.

Ajay Saini and Simron J Singh describe how such a scenario played out after the devastating 2004 tsunami hit the Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal (Scientific American, April 2020). Another case study by Singh and Willi Haas appears in the EU Civil Society Engagement with ECological EConomics (CEECEC) Handbook. The 2001 census recorded 42,000 inhabitants on the Nicobar Islands of whom 26,000 were indigenous Nicobarese, of Mongoloid stock, possibly coming from Burma thousands of years ago. Great Britain governed the islands from 1869 until they passed to India in 1947.

The traditional Nicobar Islands economy is based on growing tropical fruits (coconuts, sugarcane, lemons, bananas, oranges, mangoes), fishing and hunting wild game and rearing pigs and chickens. Toddy, an alcoholic drink made from fermented coconut sap is popular. The people live contentedly, many in extended family groups, and women have almost equal rights with men.

On December 26th, 2004 tectonic plate movement off west Sumatra caused a 9.1 magnitude earthquake, triggering the deadliest tsunami in recorded history. The 22 Nicobar Islands were hit by waves over 15m high. Entire villages were washed into the sea and 3,449 people were officially reported dead or missing (independent estimates were as high as 10,000). A total of 125,000 domestic animals, 6,000 hectares of coconut plantation, 40,000 hectares of coral reef and 75 per cent of the houses were destroyed.

As the years of enforced idleness passed, the Nicobarese gradually lost the motivation to work, developed a taste for fast food, depression set in and many took to strong drinks such as rum

Although 95 per cent of Nicobarese are Christian, many pre-Christian animistic beliefs are retained. They believe that the soul leaves the body at death and the person turns into a ghost. Spirits are thought to cause storms and disease. Shamans are consulted to identify and pacify spirits responsible for storms etc.

As Saini and Singh explain: “In the Nicobarese worldview death is the continuation of life in another form. All ceremonies involve veneration of ancestral and natural spirits channelled through carved and painted statues. These objects are regarded as living beings who guard the home, the village and the community. No one ever really dies. If any society has the cultural and psychological resources to cope with a natural disaster it is the indigenous people of these islands”. But unfortunately this natural resilience was frustrated by humanitarian aid.

The Indian army evacuated 29,000 tsunami survivors, 20,000 of whom were ethnic Nicobarese, accommodating them in 118 camps in elevated parts of the remaining islands. Most Nicobarese wanted to return quickly to their own islands to repair their houses and tend their gardens. Many feared that prolonged separation from their native islands and ancestral family spirits would destroy their identity.

The government announced they would forego major aid benefits if they left. This confused the Nicobarese and most decided to stay in the cramped camps in enforced idleness with no space to grow food, no hunting or fishing, no tools to build houses and surviving on government rations.

Culturally inappropriate

Much of the aid was at odds with cultural needs. For example, traditional Nicobarese houses are built of bamboo and wood, but the government constructed permanent “tsunami shelters” using concrete blocks and galvanised iron. Nicobarese cannot repair these houses when problems arise. And when allocating houses, the government split extended families into nuclear ones.

The government also deposited large amounts of money into the bank accounts of the male heads of the nuclear families, which, together with housing allocation policy, undermined the traditional extended family system and the status of women. Much of the aid money was spent buying televisions, mobile phones and motorbikes.

As the years of enforced idleness passed, the Nicobarese gradually lost the motivation to work, developed a taste for fast food, depression set in and many took to strong drinks such as rum in preference to toddy. Alcoholism is now a problem as are other western diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

As Saini and Singh point out, the Nicobarese knew how to look after themselves after the tsunami hit. All they needed was a sympathetic ear from government and NGOs; not a deluge of inappropriate aid. Many Nicobarese now regret having gone along with their “rescuers” and are planning to return to their native islands.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC