Ten years on from the Boxing Day tsunami

On 26 December 2004, a 9.1–9.3 magnitude earthquake struck in the Indian Ocean, creating the biggest tsunami the world had seen in forty years.

A wall of water fanned out across the Indian Ocean, slamming into coastal areas at 800 km per hour with little or no warning. Tragically, over 300,000 people in fourteen countries across two continents lost their lives.

The epicentre was off the west coast of Sumatra in Indonesia, with the northern province of Aceh one of the worst hit areas. In some places, waves reached 20 metres (around six storeys), eroding whole shorelines as they retreated. Over 600,000 people lost their livelihoods in Aceh alone, and marine ecosystems were heavily damaged affecting fishing, ecotourism and agriculture.

Tsunami model. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

This model, on display in Aceh’s Tsunami Museum, gives some perspective of the scale of the waves that struck shorelines in 2004. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Already working in the region, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) staff (two of whom, Ozeal and Mira, were killed in the tsunami) were on the ground immediately and, after helping with the initial aid relief and horrific clean up, instigated plans to help families rebuild their livelihoods through sustainable small tourism-related businesses, while protecting the recovering coastal ecosystems.

Reconstruction after the devastating tsunami led to an unprecedented demand for Aceh’s natural resources, especially timber. FFI therefore created a programme to help government and civil society partners safeguard the Ulu Masen and Leuser forests, which cover a combined three million hectares and provide vital ecosystem services such as fresh water.

FFI staff captured moments from those days, weeks and months post tsunami, as the world seemed to band together in the most hideous of circumstances. In memory of everyone who lost their lives and livelihoods, a selection of those images appear below, alongside current day pictures taken by photographer Jeremy Holden, which show how far Aceh has come in the decade since the disaster.

FFI helped with the initial relief and clean-up operations. Credit: FFI.

FFI helped with the initial relief and clean-up operations. Credit: FFI.

An elephant helps clear the rubble. Credit: Helene Barnes/FFI.

With cars and other machinery destroyed, Conservation Response Unit elephants played a useful role in helping to clear the rubble. Credit: Helene Barnes/FFI.

Refugee camp. Credit: FFI.

According to USAID figures, the tsunami displaced 532,898 people from their homes in Aceh. Credit: FFI.

Rebuilding homes and lives. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Understandably, this put a huge amount of pressure on natural resources as people worked to rebuild their homes and lives. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Boat washed ashore. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Livelihoods were also severely affected – for example, around 80-90% of Aceh’s fishing fleet was lost. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Coral rubble. Credit: FFI.

The international community was quick to respond, and by the following year there were around 2,800 more boats in operation than before the tsunami. Unfortunately, this put extra pressure on marine ecosystems that had been damaged by the tsunami. Credit: FFI.

Fishing boats off Banda Aceh. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Thanks to the hard work of FFI and partners, Aceh now has 44 locally-managed marine areas, which give communities control over their traditional fishing grounds and the incentive to manage them sustainably. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

CRU patrol. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Meanwhile, the elephant Conservation Response Units (CRU) are back at work, protecting forests from illegal activities such as logging and mining, while helping to reduce conflicts between wild elephants and people living in or near elephant habitat. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Mangrove defences. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

In many cases, mangroves offered coastal communities significant protection from the tsunami. For example, an IUCN study that compared the death toll between two Sri Lankan villages hit by the tsunami found that only two people died in the settlement with thick mangrove forests, compared with an estimated 6,000 deaths in the village without this vegetation. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Mangrove regeneration. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Based on studies like this, mangrove regeneration projects are under way across the region, including on the island of Pulau Weh, Aceh. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

School lesson. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Ten years after the tsunami, life is returning to normal – albeit with permanent visual reminders of the disaster. Here, schoolchildren in Aceh take their classes beside a grounded boat, left behind when the waters receded. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Wall of names. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

All the same, the more than 300,000 people who lost their lives will never be forgotten, especially in this region. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.