24 December 2014

After the tsunami: a Thai fishing village, ten years on

Story by Andy Brown / Video by Jingjai N.

It’s been almost ten years since the Indian Ocean tsunami hit the Thai island of Koh Lanta on 26 December 2004, but talking about it still brings tears to Ampai’s eyes. “I often cry when I talk about the tsunami,” she says apologetically. “It’s always at the back of my mind, like a scar that doesn’t heal.”

Ampai with her three children outside the family home on Koh Lanta
© UNICEF Thailand/2014/Jingjai N.

Ampai Madsaron, 42, lives in a poor fishing village which is totally dependent on the ocean and was hit hard by the tsunami. Her home is a wooden hut built on stilts over the sea to allow easy access for the family’s fishing boat. They earn around 1,000 baht ($30 US dollars) for a good day’s catch of fish, squid or crabs.

It is early in the morning and Ampai’s husband Yunui is out fishing. She sits on a woven mat on the porch with her three children: Tanya, 18, Noppadol, 12, and Nattaporn, 9. Behind her, life jackets and fishing nets are hung up to dry. Koh Lanta is a predominantly Muslim area, and Ampai wears a black headscarf, embroidered with starbursts of blue, white and yellow.

“I was on the hillside above the house when the sea rushed out and I saw the wave coming,” she remembers. “I had seen a Japanese documentary about tsunamis on TV, so I knew straight away what was happening. Some of my neighbours just stood there staring at the wave, but I shouted at them to run up the hill.”

Ampai counted seven waves in total. “The first two passed by offshore, then the third one hit our house,” she recalls. “The water came back down carrying boulders and by the end our home was completely destroyed. There are around 100 houses in our village and almost half of them were destroyed, along with many fishing boats.”

Everyone in Ampai’s village survived, partly thanks to her warning, but it was a close thing. “I was very afraid and desperately worried about my children,” she continues. “I was carrying my nephew and he was crying as we ran up the hill. I told my neighbours not to worry about their homes or possessions, we just have to save our lives.”

Noppadol and Nattaporn examine one of the fish their father has caught
© UNICEF Thailand/2014/Jingjai N.

After the tsunami, the family stayed at an evacuation centre in the local school for a month, then moved to Ampai’s mother’s house further uphill while they rebuilt their own home. “It was a difficult time,” Ampai says. “We didn’t have enough rice to eat and the shops raised their prices. People didn’t want to fish or eat seafood because there were still bodies in the sea.”

Ampai became a UNICEF focal point for her community. She was already a health volunteer with the nearby hospital and leader of the local women’s group. She worked with UNICEF to distribute food and supplies in her village, making sure that everybody got their fair share.

She also set up a business with other women drying and selling fish, with 30,000 baht seed funding from UNICEF. Within a few years, Ampai increased the funds to 300,000 baht. “We used the seed funding to buy equipment like knives, wooden buckets and ice coolers, as well as salt and extra fish when we couldn’t catch enough,” she says. “UNICEF built a workshop where we could cut and dry the fish. We used some of the profits to support elderly and vulnerable villagers.”

A few months after the tsunami, the local school reopened. UNICEF restocked the library with schoolbooks and provided a motorcycle for the teachers so they could make home visits to remote families, particularly if their children didn’t show up for class. Ten years later, both the schoolbooks and motorbike are still in use.

For Ampai, her work with UNICEF was part of her usual approach to life and her community. “I like to help other people,” she explains. “It’s a great feeling when the whole village works together. I am grateful to UNICEF for helping me to have a good life, and for what they have done for our community.”

Ampai’s oldest son, Tanya, is now 18. He works at the local pier helping to moor boats. Although he was only eight at the time of the tsunami, he also has strong memories of it.

“I was at home eating noodles with my little brother and looking out to sea,” he remembers. “When the tsunami came, I didn’t even realise it was a wave. It looked like a big cloud. But I heard my mother shouting at me to run away. Then I was very scared. I picked up my brother and ran up the hill.”

Tanya didn’t like living at his grandmother’s house after the tsunami, because it was so crowded with relatives. Once his parent’s house was rebuilt, he was very happy to move back home. His younger brothers both want to be fishermen like his father, but he hopes to take a vocational training course and become a mechanic.

He is clearly very proud of Ampai. “My mother is very smart,” Tanya says with a wide smile. “She started the women’s group and got help for our village after the tsunami. But she still has time to look after me and my brothers.”

Building back better

In the months and years after the tsunami, UNICEF supported children, families and communities across all the affected provinces of Thailand. We helped install new and better quality water and sanitation facilities in 121 schools and 71 early childhood development centres. This was done following consultations with children, parents and teachers, who identified it as their top priority.

We worked with teachers, parents and community members to develop early learning materials for children up to six years old. These included exercises to help children express their feelings about the tsunami. We also trained nearly 400 teachers and caregivers in using these materials.

Since the tsunami, disaster risk reduction has become a regular part of UNICEF’s work across the Asia-Pacific region. There will always be earthquakes, typhoons, floods and tsunamis. Disaster risk reduction is about preventing these natural hazards from becoming humanitarian disasters that create human suffering and impact on children’s lives, for example through emergency drills in schools.

“We are much better prepared if there is ever another tsunami,” Ampai says. “There’s a siren in the municipal office. You can even hear it out at sea. We’ve done several emergency drills and have all our important documents ready in case we need to flee.”

The author
Andy Brown is Regional Communication Specialist for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific

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