Reflections from the Seminar

Beyond Control – Risk and Learning After the Tsunami
held at Lund University, Monday 11 april 2005, 13–21.
Organised by SASNET in collaboration with the Centre for East and South East Asian Studies (ACE),
and Lund University’s Arena for Global Equity and Sustainability Issues (AGESI).
Venue: Edens hörsal, Paradisgatan 5, Lund.
Full programme, in Swedish only

Summary by Sabina Andrén, AGESI:

After the earthquake and the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, Lund University’s Vice-Chancellor Göran Bexell appointed a working group to propose how the university could pay attention to the natural disaster.


One of the suggestions was to organise an open seminar where researchers and other experts would give their view on risks and learning based on the Tsunami disaster. This seminar was held on Monday 11 April 2004. Collaborating partners to arrange this event was Swedish South Asian Studies Network (SASNET), Centre for East- and South-East Asian Studies and Arena for Global Equity and Sustainability Issues (AGESI).

The seminar was introduced by Vice-Chancellor Göran Bexell himself. In his speech he described the seminar as a part of Lund University’s profile on global sustainable development. He also underlined the importance of interdisciplinary meetings and co-operation between faculties on this subject.

Concepts of risk and control

Johannes Persson, Associate Professor at Lund University’s Department of Philosophy, was the first speaker in the afternoon session. As a philosopher he elaborated on ”The concepts of risk and control”. What people consider as a risk depends not only on the specific object that is concerned, but also on the possibilities of risk management and protection from this risk object.
When the person or the society has total control, then the risk is zero. On the opposite, when there are no possibilities to influence the course of events at all, risk has changed into destiny. It is between these polarities we, as individuals and as societies, are forced to live. We also have to separate between two types of risks: risks as general categories and risks as individual events. When the Tsunami reached the shores of the Indian Ocean, it could no longer be considered as a risk, because it was already an actual and on-going event that couldn't be controlled.
For the individuals who were hit by the Tsunami, we can no longer speak of risk, but of a fact. But if we look at Tsunamis as a general phenomenon, then they are certainly a risk, because the individual as well as the society can make choices that will create different risk images. For example, a Tsunami warning system or other precautionary measures for those living very near to shore, would have reduced the risk for Tsunamis as general phenomena. One of the things that we can learn from the Tsunami in 2004, is that while we as individuals to some extent can reduce our exposure to risk, political and collective actions of risk management are very important. At the same time even modern societies and individuals as modern persons have to live with the fact that risks will always exist and can never be completely controlled.

Nicobar Islands worst affected

The next speaker was Simron jit Singh, Researcher and Lecturer at the Institute of Social Ecology, University of Klagenfurt in Vienna. Singh defended his PhD at the Department of Human Ecology in Lund on ecological unequal exchange using the Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal as a case (more information on his dissertation). The Nicobars, part of the Indian Union territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, are largely inhabited by an indigenous community called the Nicobarese. They were heavily affected by the Tsunami.
Simron, who spoke on the effects of the Tsunami to the Nicobar Islands, arrived to the seminar straight from the Nicobar Islands, where he had been working with the local Tribal Council in the first phase of rehabilitation and reconstruction after the Tsunami. Emotionally affected and upset by the effects of the natural disaster, Singh showed unique photographs from the totally devastated islands. Being close to the epicentre and with people living on the coastal zones were one of the most severely affected areas in the Indian Ocean. Nearly one third of the inhabitants were swept away by the waves, while the surviving are left homeless, propertyless, and without an economy to support them.
The Nicobarese economy, prior to the Tsunami, was largely subsistent, derived by hunting and gathering, fishing and the export of copra (dehydrated coconut) in exchange for rice, cloth and other daily commodities. Singh’s description of the national and international assistance was very critical. The Indian authorities were very slow to undertake rescue and deliver relief to the affected people on the islands. Insensitive interventions, lack of co-ordination, and little understanding of the special cultural and ecological context have been serious problems in the post tsunami phase. Indigenous leaders played a vital role in the rescue operations, while state representatives and NGO officials operated with different logics and means. According to Singh, the NGOs are involved in a kind of ‘bidding ground’ to the assistance activities.
In this ‘Eden for NGO’s”, a peculiar ‘market place’ for state and NGO competition has also emerged. While the whole process of rehabilitation and reconstruction has been stalled by these conflicts, Singh puts hope in the work of the local tribal council, that attempts to coordinate a comprehensive reconstruction plan for the Nicobar Islands to be developed in consultation with the people. The plan aims to rebuild the unique culture and livelihood of the islands without destroying traditional forms of self-reliance, the social system and local leadership, and the ecologically sustainable management of the natural resources of the islands.

Eric Clark, Professor at Lund University’s Department of Social and Economic Geography, spoke about: ‘The Second Wave – Beyond Control?’ As a researcher in Social Geography he has paid special attention to processes of gentrification, which involve shifts in land use and displacement of land users associated with redevelopment. One example is the way attractive areas on tropical islands are bought by socio-economically powerful groups whose visions of hotels, restaurants and luxurious residencies stand in stark contrast to the visions of present land-users. Gentrification is a general and worldwide phenomenon. Poor and marginalized groups are unsettled from their homelands by a process of market economy logics and the strength of those who have access to capital and power.
‘The second wave of risk comes when what is disaster for one person, becomes an opportunity for another’ Eric Clark pointed out. What will happen on the islands and coastlands of the Indian Ocean? Will the local and small scale fishing populations be driven away to be replaced by tourist hotels and recreation areas for the urban rich? Is this kind of process a necessary evil, the price for ‘development’ in these often relatively poor countries of the region? There are evidently many ‘top-down’ measures and signs of gentrification in the ‘post Tsunami phase’. But Eric Clark also directed the seminar participants’ attention to other actors that do not represent large scale and financially strong interests. The reconstruction of the shores and islands of the Bay of Bengal is not without opportunity for these groups. But at the same time, the ‘colonial presence’ and the huge inequalities with regard to access to power and capital is a threat to socially and culturally as well as ecologically sustainable post Tsunami reconstruction.

War or peace in Sri Lanka after the Tsunami?

Next speaker was Camilla Orjuela, Researcher at the Department of Peace and Development Research (PADRIGU) at Göteborg University. She had recently returned from a month’s visit to Sri Lanka where she took part in a study organized by the Sri Lankan government and international donors on how to implement post-tsunami reconstruction. The east and south coasts of Sri Lanka were severely hit by the Tsunami. About 30 000 people died and whole areas were devastated.
Rebuilding Sri Lanka is dual challenge Besides the massive reconstruction, there is also the conflict between the government and the Tamilian forces in the north and east part of the country to take into consideration. Camilla Orjuela gave a detailed report about the current situation in Sri Lanka, a situation which unfortunately shows slow progress in moving from first aid assistance to long term reconstruction and rehabilitation. Local people experience a lack of information and opportunity to influence the process. The Sri Lankan government exercises a centralized power from the capital in the south west.
In combination with the political conflict this adds another problem to an already vague democratic situation. If the properties and houses lost in the Tsunami are to be compensated for, will this also be the case for property and houses destroyed and lost because of the conflict? What is the reconstruction of the coast near villages going to look like? What is to be rebuilt and on what level of material standards? What kind of ‘development’ will be implemented in the post Tsunami reconstruction of Sri Lanka? Camilla Orjuela gave a disturbing picture of the struggle between national and international actors and their large scale plans on the one hand, and the local and small-scale population that must live with the consequences on the other.

How westerners reacted to the effects

The last speaker in the afternoon session was Alf Hornborg, Professor at the Human Ecology Division. As a cultural anthropologist and world system researcher, Hornborg presented some reflections on how we, as modern persons in the industrialized Western countries, reacted on the effects of the Tsunami. While as a seismic sea-wave it was obvious on our TV-screens, it also created what could be called ‘an emotional tidal wave’ in the global community, comparable to that following 9/11. Our perceptions of identity and security were fundamentally shaken. How could this disaster happen? Was nature really so beyond control? And as Europeans and especially Swedish tourists were among the victims: how could this be allowed to happen to our own relatives and friends?
At the same time as feelings of deep distress and dismay are understandable, there are also some important lessons to be learned from the Tsunami. Firstly, nature has other features than just being a relaxing domain for leisure and consumption. Nature is not only beautiful and enjoyable, but frightening and wild. Even if human beings have made progress in the exploitation of almost every single ecosystem on the planet, nature remains inherently beyond our control. Secondly, the Tsunami uncovered what Hornborg called the political geography of security.
Even if the wealthy nations of the so-called North are expected to provide welfare and security for their citizens, increasing mobility in a globalized world has made it more difficult to keep danger out (witness 9/11) and to keep citizens securely at home. Moreover, the prosperity of these nations is intimately linked to a world system of unfair distribution of resources and unequal trade relations. The technological security offered by the welfare state can thus only be local. Globally we can expect increasing levels of insecurity, often as the flip side of the North’s technological struggles to increase security at home.

Panel discussion

The seminar ended with a panel discussion between researchers and persons with experiences from the Tsunami catastrophe. Staffan Lindberg, Professor at the Department of Sociology (and Director for SASNET) and moderator of the seminar, introduced the theme of the evening discussion: ”From Disaster to Mustering of Strength. How Do We Transform the Strong Interest into a Strong Commitment for Environmental and Development Issues?
Staffan raised some questions for the panel and the audience to discuss: What can we learn from the Tsunami and perhaps do better in the future? What possibilities are there to strengthen and co-ordinate efforts in support of an ecologically and socially sustainable development in the region? Some answers to these questions, and others were discussed by the panel and the audience. The panel members also gave a short presentation of their view on lessons to be learned from the Tsunami.

Christer Gunnarsson, Professor at the Department of Economic History, advocated the need for faster and stronger development in terms of increased wealth from economic growth and productivity. Even if the risk of unequal benefits from economic growth and increased production of goods and services has to be properly managed at a political level, the threat is not development, but rather the lack of development in many of these countries, according to Gunnarsson. It remains to be seen if the national authorities and the international community are able to monitor such a ‘positive development’ in the region.

Mason Hoadley, Professor at the Department of East and South-East Asian Languages (photo to the right), reported from Indonesia, one of the most affected countries in the region. In the very poor and war-torn coastal areas north of Sumatra, the Aceh region, the earthquake and the Tsunami almost completely destroyed the social structure. The Indonesian government has launched an assistance plan for relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction. But the implementation has yet to take place, and there is also some doubt whether the huge amounts of money will be spent on efficient and targeted assistance to the people.
Mason Hoadley questioned whether the traditional political and administrative bureaucracy is able to adopt the new ideas of ‘public management’, for example to use methods for democratic participation, bottom-up policies and transparency of information.

Joining the panel was Robert Klingvall, student at Lund Institute of Technology and often visiting Thailand as his mother and many relatives are Thai. Robert Klingvall was in northern Thailand when the Tsunami hit the southern coasts. He immediately went to the area and worked as an interpreter for a Swedish medical team. Robert Klingvall gave an intimate and detailed picture of the chaos and panic that characterized the situation in Phuket during the first days after the Tsunami. He described the difficult work of the medical team, and criticised media for not giving a comprehensive and balanced picture of the very complex situation that faced the victims and for those trying to assist and help.

Bundhit Pien, Lecturer at the Department of East and South-East Asian Languages, also described the Thai situation but from a social perspective. Tsunamis are nothing new in the history and experience of the Thai people. And despite of the warnings that were received from the Pacific Ocean Tsunami warning system some 75 minutes before the actual tidal wave reached the coast lines of Thailand, no warnings were sent out to the coast near local villages and tourist resorts.
Are the Thai people risk loving and believers in fate? Or is it a question of a corrupt bureaucratic system that will risk anything except to threaten the profitable tourist industry and the image of Thailand as a safe and strong country? Bundhit Pien asked for correct data and for the true picture of the whole course of events. He urgently requested Sweden and the international community to demand transparent information from the Thai government on the issue.

Sören Sommelius, writer and journalist at the Swedish newspaper Helsingborgs Dagblad (photo to the right), commented on the role of media. Western media covers only the parts of the world which are connected to western economical interests. So almost nothing was in the beginning reported from the Indian east coast on the effects of the tsunami, as the consequences for multimillion city Chennai. Small Scandinavian tourist resorts were heavily covered.
As Swedes we have a personal interest in the situation in the resorts, but the bias was nevertheless obvious to every observer. Sören Sommelius painted an alarming picture of the state of the media reports. Every day around a hundred thousand humans die from hunger, poverty and diseases that we have the possibility to cure. But these continuous disasters do not create big headlines. Media, as well as the university, has an important role to play in creating a true ‘global arena’ for information and communication about the state of the world.

Sabina Andrén, AGESI        

The post-Tsunami seminar was also covered by the regional newspapers: The journalist Stig Larsén wrote an article in Sydsvenskan on 12 April 2005, called ”Tsunamihjälp får skarp kritik”. Read his article (as a pdf-file, in Swedish).

Sören Sommelius, participant in the seminar himself, also wrote an article called ”Hur länge varar vårt intresse för offren?”, published in Helsingborgs Dagblad on Wednesday 13 April 2005. Read his article (as a pdf-file, in Swedish).

Finally the seminar was covered by Lund University’s journal Lunds Universitet Meddelar (LUM) in its 27 April issue. Read Ulrika Oredsson’s interview with Simron Jit Singh, an article called ”Fel hjälp kom till Nikobarerna” (as a pdf-file, in Swedish).


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