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Home » There Is Nothing Natural About Disaster: Rohini Swaminathan (Transcript)

There Is Nothing Natural About Disaster: Rohini Swaminathan (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Geomatics engineer Rohini Swaminathan’s talk titled “There Is Nothing Natural About Disaster” at TEDxPlaceDesNations 2016 conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


Growing Up

Hello, I still remember the very first time I ever said that word holding a telephone. I grew up in a very small remote forest in South India, you know, the kind with no running water, just me and monkeys running around. And as a child, one of my favorite things was to hold a telephone and talk on it. But for me to do that, my parents would have to put me in a bus and make a 100 kilometer trip.

Technology still hadn’t gotten that far yet. One day, it was in December of 2004. It was just the day after Christmas. I was 15 years old, and I woke up to the news of what would become the deadliest disasters of recorded human history. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit the eastern coast of India, not too far from my little forest, with several other countries nearby. It took the lives of over 200,000 people and left millions homeless.

All that happened just in a few hours. At that time, part of my father’s job was go through coastal villages and assess the activities of the fisherman community. And for the very first time when I went with him, I saw what disasters could leave behind.

Witnessing Destruction

It was destruction beyond my imagination. As I was walking through this small village, there was an old grandfather pointing at a mass grave, and he said, “We had to bury hundreds of people together because we didn’t have enough time to dig individual graves.” When the first wave hit, he said, news about these majestic waves, waves as tall as coconut trees, spread so fast, faster than the waves themselves, that people woke up and ran towards the ocean to witness this mystery.

And the second wave, which was more forceful, took more lives with it. As an angry teenager, I asked my father, “Why no one did anything about this? Why did this happen?” And he simply replied, “Kiddo, ask what you can do if this happens again.” And there I was, a teenage girl who was growing up with monkeys in a forest, listening to stories about how it was nature’s wrath that took people’s lives. And I certainly didn’t think anything could be done.

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