Tsunami has limited impact on international air, sea traffic

4 January 2005

By Stephen Somerville and Humphrey Hudson


LONDON The Asian tsunami disaster, despite its catastrophic toll in human lives and coastal communities around the Indian Ocean, has had relatively little impact on the safety of international traffic flows, analysts said. But regional security issues, especially threats to maritime movements through the Malacca Straits, remain.

    The giant waves did not cause significant damage to any major seaport or airport and no serious shipping losses have been reported by regional port authorities although there have been some delays to the Indian port of Chennai. Larger vessels at sea when the earthquake struck were able to ride over the waves, while the Arun liquefied natural gas plant at the tip of Aceh was undamaged and resumed shipments late on December 26 after a brief halt earlier in the day.

    In the insurance sector, the initial reaction from major insurance companies suggests that disaster claims will cost less than $10 billion, with Munich Re and Swiss Re - the world's largest reinsurers - saying exposure will be less than for other major disasters. With many of those affected by the tsunami being uninsured, the main claims are likely to come from resorts and foreign tourists.

    Although ocean and earthquake scientists have been warning for several years that a tsunami was likely in the Indian Ocean, regional governments have ignored these calls for action largely on cost grounds, but this now looks likely to change. An emergency conference in Jakarta on January 6 is expected to press for such a system and seek help from major donors including the United States.

    "We need the US government's help for the installation of an early tsunami warning system," said Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, while President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia stated he wanted a system to help "prevent massive loss of life and to handle future earthquakes and natural disasters as well as to take preventative action".

    Where the disaster has an immediate effect on the global logistics chain is in the massive and growing aid effort to help the stricken communities. From the United States to Australia, a large-scale airlift of goods and materiel is under way and in many cases the armed forces with their organisational skills and heavy equipment, including large transport helicopters and planes, are leading the way. Pre-positioned US naval support vessels from their Indian Ocean base at Diego Garcia, which was by all accounts undamaged by the tsunami, are also taking part.


Tourism to continue


    Although tourism in the affected regions will be impacted, scheduled air traffic is expected to continue normally as tourism provides a vital role in supporting local economies and alternative destinations are available in some countries. The Maldives may be more at risk in this area, while Danish travel agencies are apparently pulling out of Sri Lanka but will continue to operate in Thailand.

    In Indonesia, Banda Aceh has been off the tourist track for many years due to the separatist movement there. But pressure will grow on airports in the affected areas they struggle to cope with a large number of flights, including freighter traffic bringing in relief supplies from across the globe. The scale of demand for airlift capacity is also expected to firm rates, especially in the charter cargo market.


Terrorist threat still exists for Malacca Straits


    But neither can the impact from the tsunami on potential terrorist action be ignored. Although in Sri Lanka it seems the government and Tamil Tigers are working together to aid the survivors, which may help towards achieving peace, it appears that in Aceh - despite the dreadful death toll and suffering there - government forces are still prepared to hunt down members of the Aceh independence movement.

    There has been much recent international pressure to improve security in the Malacca Straits given the combined threat of piracy and terrorism. Some recent pirate attacks have been seen by intelligence analysts as being practice runs for seizing a chemical or LNG tanker which could then be used to inflict major damage in a port - such as Singapore - or to effectively seal off the 500 mile long Straits through which some 30 percent of the world's trade passes along with 80 percent of Japan's crude oil shipments and a rapidly increasing amount of China's energy supplies.

    When in 2004 a US admiral hinted that the United States might seek to position forces in the region to provide improved protection for commercial vessels, there was a major outcry from both Indonesia and Malaysia.

    Today, there is now a major US naval task force providing aid to strongly Muslim Aceh and through its geographical positioning it gives the US and its allies - including Japan and Australia - an opportunity to effectively monitor all traffic through the Malacca Straits well into the future if they so chose.

    Will terrorists drop their plans because of the tsunami or will they believe that new targets - such as US naval forces - are now more accessible? Or are existing targets more vulnerable as governments concentrate on aid and security becomes more lax at regional airports and ports? The answers to these questions are not clear but the risk is certainly there.


India loses Nicobar air base


    A further security issue is the major destruction wrought on the key Indian air force base at Car Nicobar, which was virtually swept away by the tsunami. Not only did the strategic base enable India to monitor traffic in neighbouring countries and Malacca Straits traffic but it also played a very strategic role in curbing the movement of illegal immigrants, arms and narcotics into India.

    With most of the buildings destroyed and a substantial number of casualties amongst the air force personnel, first estimates suggest it will take a year to rebuild a fully functioning air base, able to operate Sukhoi 30 and Jaguar fighters. In the meantime Indian defence analysts say "a hole has been punched in the nation's security setup".


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