Tsunami's Impact

on Thailand

Hannah Lott lotthn@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.


    On December 26th, 2004, a giant tsunami hit countries surrounding the Indian Ocean. Many of these countries’ economies revolved around tourism, and as such the beaches were full of tourists from all around the world the day that the waves came in higher and higher. In Thailand, the western coast along the Andaman Sea was most affected, with at least 8,346 people dead and many more missing. Tourist beaches were hit hardest by the tsunami. This natural disaster has had many economic impacts in Thailand because its main industry (tourism) was severely affected.

"Tourist Nation"

Thailand’s main economy consists of tourism, which creates about 12% of its overall GDP. However, this economy is much more developed in Khao Lak, Ko Phi Phi, and Phuket, which are the areas that were hit hardest by the tsunami. Tourism has created jobs in these areas, and has been a major part of the economy since 1982. In recent years, however, Thailand has struggled to keep tourism thriving along these pristine beaches, and has ended up hurting the environment because of the lack of coordinated economic efforts. In tourism areas, 70% of hotels remained open after the tsunami, and the owners of the hotels continued to encourage tourists to come back. These hotels were only 10% filled, since tourists felt uneasy carrying on normal beach activities knowing that so many people had died there.

Tourism affected the Thai government’s reaction to news of the incoming tsunami earlier on December 26th. The government decided that it did not want to scare tourists with the possibility of a tsunami, especially if this was over-exaggerated by scientists. Smith Thammasaroj a former chief of Thailand's Meteorological Department, predicted in 1998 that a tsunami would hit tourist areas and that there would be a massive death toll. Officials did not pay attention to him until after December 26, 2004. A false alarm would have a very negative effect on the tourist industry, and the Thai government decided that it would forgo any early-warning system.

Thammasaroj pointed out on ABC News that the Meteorological Department in Thailand knew about the 9.0 earthquake up to an hour before the waves began rolling onto shore. Tourism also affected the Thai government’s reaction to the destruction in the wake of the tsunami. Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra claimed that the country did not need any financial aid. He said that there had been a great deal of cooperation between the private (business) and public (government) sectors, and that because of this the area was “back to normal.”

Tourist area in Phuket that has been cleaned up and is trying to attract visitors. Source: Updated Pictures of Phuket


The People

The most difficult aspect of the post-tsunami efforts in Thailand is identifying bodies. To properly identify a corpse, there needs to be a match with dental records, DNA, or fingerprints. DNA is not always useful, as bodies tend to decay very quickly in a tropical climate, and this interferes with the DNA. Fingerprints are hardly ever used because of the unavailability of sets of fingerprints previous to the tsunami. Therefore, dental records have been used the most with identifying victims of the tsunami, and are used 90% of the time. Officials recommend that families of missing people post photos of them with their teeth showing, as this will make identifying bodies somewhat easier.

A Thai police officer stands in front of the pictures of missing people.

According to China Daily, it was officially reported that 5,300 people had died, but that number has now increased to 8,346 as of March 1, 2005 by the Tsunami Laboratory. The Thai government also projected that approximately 2,839 people were missing. However, nongovernmental organizations have begun to look at data, and are questioning the Thai government, saying that they have “found a major discrepancy in the number of missing people.” They are estimating that there are about 8,107 missing people. This questioning of data, along with the Thai government’s reaction to the tsunami, makes the government look like it is attempting to cover up how many people actually were affected.

The Moken

The Thai indigenous group known as the Moken are nomads who travel along the Thai coast. Every aspect of the ives of these so-called "sea gypsies" has revolved around water for many generations. They live on houseboats, and any wealth comes from the sea, normally in the form of fish. National Geographic claims that the Moken have a “deep knowledge” of the sea, which helped them predict the tsunami. They understood that they needed to seek higher ground when they saw the sea level suddenly drop. Thus, only one member of the tribe, a disabled man, died.

A Moken boathouse. Source: National Geographic

Previously, the Thai government had attempted to integrate the Moken into the dominant Thai majority society. The rest of society viewed the Moken as somewhat worthless, because all they would do is travel along the coast and not provide any economic help for the area. But now that they have survived the tsunami, Thais are beginning to look at the Moken differently. They now appreciate and respect these people because of their life-saving understanding of the sea.

What is going to happen next...

The Socialist Worker states that “natural disasters, such as violent storms, earthquakes and tsunami may have natural causes, but the effects are never just the results of natural accidents.” One of the effects of this specific tsunami is the rate of prostitution. The UN is worried that, because the Thai economy is weakening, more and more people will take to selling themselves to make ends meet. This a huge concern, as many Thais do not have access to condoms, and therefore HIV and AIDS rates will increase dramatically. This situation calls into question the tourism-based economy, which can enable sexual exploitation of local citizens.

The tsunami that affected the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean had a dramatic effect on certain places, which we need to consider when we look at such a disaster. First of all, there should have been a warning system that the Thai government should have used to warn all tourists and citizens of the impending tsunami. The UN, along with Western governments and the affected countries, are now in the process of building one. This is incredibly important, because more tsunamis may be on their way. The floor of the Indian Ocean moved dramatically on December 26th, 2004, and therefore more earthquakes are likely to occur in the next few years. The warning system should measure the magnitude of the earthquake, along with predicting where and when it will affect certain areas. With this information, the majority of people can at least remain unharmed.



For more information on this topic:

ABC News: http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/Tsunami/wireStory?id=408673

China Daily: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2005-01/11/content_407906.htm

Lonely Planet: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/tsunami/thailand.cfm

National Geographic: http://magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0504/feature 4/online_extra.html

NPR: www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyID=4538611

Socialist Worker: http://www.socialist.ca/En/SW2005/440-06-Thailand.html

The Environment in a Tourist Economy: http://www.info/tdri.or.th/y92d_abs.htm

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

Tsunami Relief Information: http://www.inet.co.th/tsunami/#amform

Updated Pictures of Phuket: http://www.thaiwaysmagazine.com/phuket/index.html

World Tsunami Disaster: http://heavenlypeace.com/tsunami.htm