Tsunami: South Asia

Murray Jamer, P.Eng.
Director of Engineering & Public Works
City of Fredericton, New Brunswick

Like most people in North America, I was shocked by the images I saw on my television following the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit South Asia on December 26, 2004. It was difficult to comprehend the catastrophic destruction and loss of life caused by this natural disaster. Almost 300,000 people in 13 countries are believed to have died or disappeared, many within the first hours after the tsunami hit. The coastal areas of Indonesia and Sri Lanka and two Indian island chains bore the brunt of the calamity.

Little did I know at the time that I would be given an opportunity to visit the areas most impacted and witness, first-hand, the after-effects of the biggest natural disaster in modern times.

I am the Director of Engineering & Public Works for the City of Fredericton, the capital city of New Brunswick. Fredericton is a city of 50,000 people located on the beautiful St. John River. In my position as Director of Engineering & Public Works, I am responsible for water and sewer services, roads and streets, traffic, solid waste, and engineering. I also served as Fredericton's Director of the Emergency Measures Organization (EMO) for a period of six years.

Since 2000, the City of Fredericton has had a partnership with the City of Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand. The partnership is coordinated through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). The Fredericton-Ubon Ratchathani partnership is one of many municipal partnerships between Canadian municipalities and municipalities from developing countries throughout the world. The purpose of these "FCM-style" municipal partnerships is to improve the capacity of the developing municipalities through exchange visits between the partner municipalities.

In addition to my regular duties in Fredericton, I have served as the coordinator of Fredericton's partnership with Ubon Ratchathani. In that capacity, I traveled to Asia three times prior to 2005. The partnership between Fredericton and Ubon Ratchathani focused primarily on planning issues including Strategic Planning, IT Planning, and Environmental Planning. The two-way partnership was considered a success and has recently been expanded to include the municipality of Lang Son, Vietnam. This is the first time a three-way partnership has been established under the FCM model.

My experience in engineering and emergency measures, combined with my recent experience in Asia, made me a good candidate to travel to post-tsunami South Asia. In February 2005, I was asked to be part of a team of Canadians to visit Sri Lanka and Indonesia. The team was sponsored by CIDA and consisted of a provincial representative from Ontario, three representatives from FCM, as well as various support staff from CIDA. I was the only representative from a Canadian municipality.

Our team spent one week in Sri Lanka (February 20-26) and one week in Indonesia (February 27-March 5). Our role was to assess the situation and to see if there were any opportunities for Canadian provinces and municipalities to play a role in disaster relief. Specifically, we wanted to determine if an "FCM-style" municipal partnership would be applicable to the conditions in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and we also wanted to establish contacts that would be useful as partnerships emerged.

Obviously, the initial relief effort was already underway with hundreds of charitable agencies such as the Red Cross and CARE on the ground. However, South Asia's rebuilding process will take many years and, in many cases, the skills required for rebuilding are much different than those required for the initial lifesaving relief.

We met with numerous people during our two-week "mission," including the Canadian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, the Canadian Ambassador in Indonesia, several mayors and other elected officials in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and representatives of numerous aid agencies. We also had the opportunity to meet and talk with people who had been directly impacted by the tsunami.

In addition to meetings in the capital cities of Colombo, Sri Lanka and Jakarta, Indonesia, I personally visited two of the "hardest hit" municipalities (Galle in Sri Lanka and Banda Aceh in Indonesia).

The devastation that I saw, particularly in Banda Aceh, was unimaginable. Near the ocean, as far as the eye could see, I witnessed almost total destruction. Buildings were completely destroyed and, of course, this was accompanied by a great loss of life.

I saw a large barge (and other boats) that had been carried by the tsunami to a point two kilometres inland from the ocean. People tend to forget that, in addition to the tsunami damage, there was damage from a major earthquake. I saw a shopping mall, well back from the area that had been affected by the tsunami, which had been completely destroyed by the earthquake. I saw earthquake-damaged buildings and structures that, while they are still standing, will have to be replaced because they are unsafe.

Probably the most lasting memory of my visit will be meeting the people whose lives were forever impacted by this disaster. I visited "tent cities" as well as "camps" for the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons. I met people who had lost their homes and, in some cases, their entire families.

I was particularly impressed by the resiliency of the children. Even after all they had suffered, they seemed to be running and playing like children anywhere.

Our team has delivered a final report for CIDA. We recommend a multi-year program that will feature municipal and provincial experts from Canada assisting their counterparts in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. FCM is now working with CIDA at establishing the partnerships recommended.

It was quite an honour to be selected for the mission to Asia and it was certainly a shocking "eye-opener" for me. I hope that our assessment, and our recommendations, will result in an improved quality of life for people in the affected areas.

Murray Jamer, P.Eng., can be reached at (506) 406-2031 or

Cultural Proverbs

"Adversity makes a man wise, not rich." - Romanian Proverb

"Bad is never good until worse happens." - Danish Proverb

"The church is near, but the way is icy; the tavern is far, but I will walk carefully." - Ukranian Proverb

"Dwell not upon your weariness; your strength shall be according to the measure of your desire." - Arab Proverb

"Every peasant is proud of the pond in his village, because from it he measures the sea." - Russian Proverb