Tsunami Disaster in Sri Lanka
T.J. Helgeson helgestj@uwec.edu 
Part of Waves of Devastation, a class website on the Indian Ocean Tsunami & Global Environmental Injustice, produced by students of Geography 378 (International Environmental Problems & Policy) at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, USA, Spring 2005.


The country of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), located 31 miles off the south-eastern coast of India, was hit by a tsunami triggered by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Sumatra on December 26, 2004. The tsunami was one of the worst disasters ever recorded in Sri Lankan history. The tsunami left tens of thousands dead, many more homeless, and caused widespread chaos throughout the island. In addition to the human impacts, the tsunami had widespread effects on Sri Lanka's environment and ecosystems. It is still too early to express the long-term effects caused by the tsunami, but short-term effects are clearly evident.

Source: Facts about Sri Lanka

Human Impacts

Civilian casualties in Sri Lanka were second only to those in Indonesia (see Indonesia). Reports vary on the number of deaths since many people are still missing and the country lacks adequate communications. As of March 1, 2005, estimates state that 36,603 people perished in the months following the tsunami. Another 800,000 people living on the coasts of Sri Lanka have been directly affected. The eastern shores of Sri Lanka faced the hardest impact since they were facing the epicenter of the earthquake. The southwestern shores were hit later, but the death toll was just as severe. The southwestern shores are a hotspot for tourists as well as the fishing economy. Tourism and fishing industries created high population densities along the coast.

The coastal lifestyle of people in Sri Lanka contributed to the high death tolls. The following images illustrate the correlation between population, affected areas, and mortality rates. In addition to the high number of fatalities, approximately 90,000 buildings were destroyed. Houses were easily destroyed since they were built mostly from wood. This wooden debris that was left behind is now raising issues of its own (see Clean-up).


Source: Recover Lanka

Image Source: Infinite Media

Source: Recover Lanka

Environmental Impacts

Sri Lanka is an island covered with an extensive array of plants and animals, many of which are endemic to the island (see Wildlife). Sri Lanka is also home to very delicate ecosystems such as the rainforest, coral reefs, and mangrove wetlands (see Wetlands/Timber and Reefs/Islands). The tsunami's long-term effects on these ecosystems are not as evident as the human impacts. Ecosystems, although fragile, can sustain for lengthy periods of time after harm is done to them, making it difficult to judge how well they will recover from immediate damage. Wetlands and forests were initially destroyed, but how fast and effectively they rebound is the main concern. It is important these areas bounce back and regain the enormous biodiversity they once retained. Conservation International included Sri Lanka in its list of the top 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world.

Source: MSNBC News; Environment Sri Lanka

Why is it so important for these areas to grow back quickly? In the months following the tsunami, many areas of Sri Lanka were left denuded. For many people of Sri Lanka, wildlife and the timber resources were crucial to their livelihood.The destruction of these forests creates a local climate that negatively affects inland ecosystems. These forests also act as a barrier or cushion for waves, as some did in the tsunami of 2004. Forested areas of the coast helped to ease the impact of waves on inland areas. No one knows how many lives were spared by the forested environment.

Source: Daily News;

“In the Maldives, in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the disaster’s consequences for the environment are very severe,”

U.N. Environment Chief, Klaus Toepfer


The connection between the natural environment and the human environment was made known to the world on December 26, 2004. It will hopefully continue to be portrayed in the media for months to come. There is an irony that is very apparent in the story of the tsunami. The natural environment is what caused this disaster and stole the lives of many people. Since the "dust has settled," people are now turning to the environment for food, shelter, and income in the same ways they did before. Preserving coastal forests and wetlands are being emphasized to provide buffers to future tsunamis. Fisherman whose boats were not destroyed, are once again heading to the oceans, and tourists are once again pondering the idea of a vacation in Sri Lanka. It is ironic that the dealer of such a horrific event is now the giver of life once again on the island of Sri Lanka.


CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/asiapcf/12/28/tsunami.deaths/

Daily News: http://www.dailynews.lk/2005/02/24/new03.html

Environment Sri Lanka: http://lihini.sjp.ac.lk/forestry/elanka/biodiv.html

Facts about Sri Lanka: http://www.lankaemb-egypt.com/SriLanka/facts.htm

Humanitarian Info: http://www.humanitarianinfo.org/srilanka/infocentre/assessments/others/doc/REA.pdf

Infinite Media: http://www.infinitemedia.ws/relief/images/sl_map.gif

MSNBC News: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6894269

Recover Lanka: http://www.recoverlanka.net/maps/mortality-districtjan15.jpg

Tsunami Labratory: http://tsun.sscc.ru/tsulab/20041226fat.htm

Wikipedia Encyclopedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sri_Lanka