Andamans' agony

Print edition : January 14, 2005

AS the crow flies, Great Nicobar, the southern-most island in the Andaman and Nicobar group, is only about 150 km from Aceh in Sumatra, the epicentre of the devastating earthquake. So the impact of the tsunamis it triggered on the Andamans, particularly the Nicobars (which have a population of nearly 45,000), can well be imagined. After the first shock of a magnitude of 8.9 on the Richter scale hit Aceh at 6-30 a.m. IST, a second one, measuring 7.3, occurred at around 9 a.m. with its epicentre at Indira Gandhi Point, the tip of the Great Nicobar Island.

The relatively flat island of Car Nicobar, which has a population of nearly 25,000, mostly Nicobarese, was the worst affected. The Indian Air Force (IAF) base in Car Nicobar was washed away. Reports indicated on the morning of December 27 that at least 1,000 people had died in the islands, with 300 confirmed casualties from Car Nicobar alone. This included 23 IAF men and their families. Lieutenant-Governor Prof. Ram Kapse flew to Car Nicobar in the afternoon of December 26 to inspect the scene and supervise the rescue operations.

Considering the distance, remoteness and inaccessibility of the islands, little information was forthcoming even until late in the evening of December 26, even as the islands continued to experience tremors and aftershocks. Large parts of Port Blair went without power supply until late in the evening and telecommunications, too, were affected.

In Port Blair waves six metres high damaged the coastal front facing the Jawaharlal Nehru Rajkiya Maha Vidyalaya, a popular tourist spot. Several multi-storeyed concrete buildings that came up in the islands, particularly in Port Blair, in the past few years either collapsed or suffered damage. Cracks rendered the airstrip in Port Blair unusable, but some landings did take place later in the day.

The main wharf in Port Blair at Haddo, the Phoenix Bay Jetty, where most of the inter-island shipping originates and jetties in other islands such as Havelock and Neil, located east of Port Blair, were also damaged. Serious concern has been expressed about the damage on Great Nicobar, although there was absolutely no information from there at the time of writing. Not only is it closest to the epicentre, but its population of nearly 7,000 people is settled along a narrow strip on the island's eastern coast. Similarly, there was no news from the Central Nicobars, which have a population of nearly 12,000 spread over 10 islands, and the Little Andaman with an estimated 12,000 people. There have also been no reports from the Middle and North Andaman Islands, which have substantially larger human populations; about 45,000 and 30,000 respectively.

"What has happened is unfortunate," said Debi Goenka of the Bombay Environment Action Group, when contacted, " but thanks to the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification and the mangroves that protect our coasts, the damage to human lives was much less than what it could have been. It is ironical that the Ministry of Environment and Forests is currently undertaking a review of the CRZ notification to allow in builders, roadmakers and hoteliers," he said.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are known to be seismically active. The strongest recorded earthquake in the islands was in 1941 and measured 8.1 on the Richter scale. It caused considerable damage, although the total population in the islands then was less than 50,000. Today the islands have an estimated population of five lakhs.

The most recent earthquake, with a magnitude of 6.4, hit North Andaman in September 2002. It was located in the sea, 24 km south-southeast of Diglipur, the major township in the north in the islands.

According to the September 2002 newsletter of the Society for the Andaman and Nicobar Ecology, a unique phenomenon occurred at Campbell Bay in Great Nicobar on April 10, 1987, where the Andaman Lakshadweep Harbour Works was constructing a breakwater. Huge waves overtopped the partly constructed breakwater. A team of officers went to the site for inspection. One wave sucked four engineers into the sea and carried away a crane from the construction site. The phenomenon was examined and found to be the effect of some underwater seismic activity.

The area experienced continuous tremors for more than a month in 1982, which caused extensive damage.

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