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Indian Ocean tsunami


At 00:58:53 GMT on Sunday, 26 December 2004, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck off the west coast of Sumatra and resulted in one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. The earthquake (followed by the tsunami) was felt simultaneously in Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Burma, Thailand, Singapore and the Maldives.

Indonesia was the hardest-hit country followed by Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. The devastating tsunami killed around 230,000 people, including 26 Australians, with Indonesia suffering an estimated loss of 167,000 lives. Twenty-three Australians died in Thailand (18 Australian nationals and five permanent residents) and three Australians died in Sri Lanka.

Humanitarian response

The Australian Government's emergency relief effort was the largest peacetime operation Australia had ever launched overseas and the biggest disaster relief operation since Cyclone Tracy 30 years earlier.

Immediately after the tsunami struck, the Australian Government activated its emergency response mechanisms and committed an initial $60 million in the first week for humanitarian assistance.

Australia's total humanitarian contribution was later boosted to $69.6 million:

  • $34.4 million for Indonesia
  • $21.5 million for Sri Lanka
  • $8.3 million for regional assistance across multiple countries
  • $4.3 million for Maldives
  • $0.5 million for Seychelles
  • $0.4 million for India
  • $0.2 million for Thailand

Within 36 hours of the disaster, aid-funded medical teams and essential humanitarian supplies were sent to Indonesia on four RAAF C-130 Hercules. Aid staff from Australian diplomatic posts in affected countries were dispatched to disaster areas to assess the impact of the tsunami and additional staff from Canberra were sent to Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka to support posts.

The rapid mobilisation of aid supplies and medical assistance significantly alleviated the suffering of affected populations, and contributed to saving the lives of those seriously injured, particularly during the early stages of the response.

On 5 January 2005, the Australian Government announced a $1 billion package to Indonesia for its recovery and reconstruction phase. Further information on the Australian Government's assistance is available under country headings.

Consular response

The Indian Ocean tsunami presented an unprecedented challenge to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's (DFAT) consular service. From the early afternoon of 26 December 2004, the Department moved quickly to activate its crisis centre and emergency call unit. Both were fully operational by 6pm Canberra time.

The first Inter-Departmental Emergency Task Force (IDETF) meeting, chaired by the Department, was held at 9pm that night and brought together senior representatives of all relevant agencies to coordinate whole of government policy and operational responses. The IDETF met 22 times between 26 December 2004 and 14 January 2005.

The consular complexities posed by the tsunami were unique in scale and geographic scope. The Department activated a consular response in six countries, including in remote locations.

In Canberra, more than 300 staff – 150 of whom voluntarily returned from leave – worked around the clock coordinating with teams on the ground to confirm the safety of Australians and identify those unaccounted for, and to support and inform next of kin of developments. The Department's hotline took more than 85,000 calls, with over 15,000 Australians reported as unaccounted for.

In the immediate aftermath, the Department's posts in Thailand, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka worked with local authorities, hospitals and hotels to account for, and provide assistance to, affected Australians. Temporary offices were established in Phuket and Krabi in Thailand, and in the Maldives. Consular officers and local staff worked tirelessly in the field locating and assisting Australians.

DFAT helped facilitate medical treatment and emergency shelter for Australians, replaced travel documents and facilitated departures from affected areas. The Department worked closely with Virgin Blue and Qantas to ensure relief flights were available to as many Australians as possible who wanted to leave. Staff worked closely with the Australian Federal Police to put victim identification and support arrangements in place and assisted the repatriation of the remains of Australians killed. Forty additional staff were deployed to the region to supplement consular staff on the ground.


In addition to the estimated 167,000 people killed in the disaster in Indonesia, more than 500,000 were left homeless. About 800 kilometres of coastline was destroyed and more than 3000 hectares of land was washed away or inundated by seawater.

Ports, roads and bridges were ruined. More than 2100 schools were damaged or destroyed, as well as kindergartens, technical and vocational schools and institutes of higher education. Aceh's main hospital, Zainoel Abidin Hospital, was badly damaged and almost 400 health clinics were destroyed. So too were thousands of schools, health facilities and water sources, and many sources of livelihoods were debilitated. Nias Island suffered the dual impact of the tsunami and a massive earthquake on 28 March 2005.

Immediate assistance to Indonesia

Australia provided $34.4 million for the initial emergency response in Aceh:

  • $16 million to the World Food Programme, Surfaid, the International Organisation for Migration and the World Bank to provide health, medical and emergency relief for Banda Aceh, Simeulue Islands and Sumatra
  • $7.7 million to UNICEF, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Health Organisation to coordinate disaster logistics, and support and re-establish a range of essential services
  • $6.8 million to deploy and support Australian Government technical experts, aid workers, defence personnel and medical teams. Seven medical teams and critical medical supplies were mobilised to Northern Sumatra
  • $3.9 million to Australian NGOs

$1 billion reconstruction package

The $1 billion package of assistance to Indonesia announced by the Australian Government on 5 January 2005 provided for large-scale social and economic development programs across Aceh and elsewhere in Indonesia.

Around $323 million was spent on the recovery and reconstruction in Aceh and Nias from 2004-2011. Approximately $328 million was allocated for road improvements in eastern Indonesia, and around $300 million was provided for basic education.

The Australian Government's support in Indonesia helped reconstruct schools, village halls and health facilities. It helped Indonesians rebuild livelihoods and helped many Acehnese to develop skills to improve government service delivery.

Legacy of Australia's assistance

Australia's assistance transformed our relationship with Indonesia as our close cooperation in reconstruction and rehabilitation linked our people and institutions in a way that they had never been connected before.

Australia's assistance helped Indonesia by:

  • training more than 230 hospital workers and awarding more than 3700 scholarships to nurses, midwives and healthcare students (see video)
  • restoring emergency health care at Aceh's main hospital, Zainoel Abidin Hospital
  • establishing modern medical laboratories at Syiah Kuala University and Zainoel Abidin Hospital
  • supporting teacher training in areas hit hard by the tsunami
  • training almost 3000 small business clients throughout Aceh and Nias in business planning, marketing and financial management
  • rebuilding Aceh's main hatchery which supplied the ponds of local fish farmers
  • providing Acehnese construction workers, builders, plumbers and electricians with training in housing construction
  • giving communities better access to water and sanitation facilities, roads and bridges, schools, government services, emergency services and markets
  • providing survey and mapping data for managing and maintaining more than 20,000 schools, hospitals and other public assets built in Aceh since the 2004 tsunami
  • training 2300 people as community leaders, more than half of whom were women, in 204 villages.

Sri Lanka and Maldives

The tsunami killed more than 35,000 people in Sri Lanka and displaced more than 400,000 others. Direct losses were estimated to be approximately US$1 billion and total reconstruction costs about US$2 billion – 7 per cent of Sri Lanka's annual Gross Domestic Product.

Although fewer lives were lost in Maldives than in other countries affected by the tsunami, the damage to its economy made it one the worst affected countries. Estimated damage from the tsunami was US$470 million, which was close to 62 per cent of Gross Domestic Product. Most of the losses were concentrated in housing and tourism, with education, fishing and transport also greatly affected.

Australian assistance to Sri Lanka and Maldives

Australia provided $25.8 million in assistance including:

  • $5 million to the Asian Tsunami Fund to re-establish essential services, transport and livelihoods
  • $4.1 million to UNDP for shelter and basic infrastructure development
  • $3.6 million to UNICEF for child protection, nutrition and drinking water supply
  • $3.2 million to WFP for food aid
  • $3 million to World Bank for housing
  • $1 million to UNHCR for non-food relief parcels
  • $1.2 million to NGOs for emergency relief.

Australia's emergency assistance also included providing and distributing clean drinking water and medical relief to more than 146,000 people.

Legacy of Australia's assistance

Australia's assistance helped Sri Lanka and Maldives by:

  • re-establishing the Sri Lankan fishing industry and building vital coastal infrastructure
  • restoring key infrastructure such as roads, railways, water and sanitation facilities
  • providing permanent housing to vulnerable communities in Sri Lanka
  • strengthening education services and electrification of rural areas
  • successfully supporting the reintegration of refugees and internally displaced persons.


The tsunami heavily affected provinces on the Andaman coast of southern Thailand, causing more than 8000 casualties. The majority of people injured were foreign tourists on vacation. In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, Australia provided emergency medical assistance and supported local authorities with disaster victim identification.

In addition to the humanitarian response, Australia also provided longer term support. Following an Australian environmental assessment of coastal areas of southern Thailand, Australia provided $400,000 towards an 18-month program to improve Thailand's capacity to manage coastal zone sustainability for both aquaculture and tourism in the long term.

Last Updated: 19 December 2014
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