The Sustainability of Humanitarian Aid: The Nicobar Islands as a Case of ‘Complex Disaster’

  • Simron Jit SinghEmail author
  • Marina Fischer-Kowalski
  • Willi Haas


By virtue of being close to the epicentre, the Nicobar Islands located in the Bay of Bengal were severely affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Overwhelming aid followed, transforming an indigenous community of hunters-and-gatherers and coconut growers into a consumer society in a matter of months. Based on several years of fieldwork, this chapter describes the tsunami and its aftermath, the role of aid organizations, the media, and the government in driving the islanders from being self-reliant to becoming an aid dependent society, plagued with social conflicts. We call this a ‘complex disaster’, a situation that has fundamentally challenged the socio-ecological system to reproduce itself, an effect more severe and longer lasting than what the disaster itself had accomplished. In other words, a complex disaster is a consequence of inappropriate interventions following a ‘simple’ disaster, which affects the social system’s ability to regenerate, to govern its own recovery, by interfering with its cultural, economic, and political regulation. This, in turn, affects the environmental relations of the society. The case of the Nicobar Islands is discussed in the context of sustainability to reveal the inherent paradox between humanitarian aid and community resilience, asking the question: What is good help?


Nicobar islands Tsunami Complex disasters Community resilience Sustainable development 



The authors are grateful to the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) for financial support for the research in the aftermath of the tsunami (project RECOVER). The first author is particularly grateful to the Andaman and Nicobar Administration for granting research permission in the Nicobar Islands between 1999 and 2009, and for recurrent logistical support. The first author also thanks Chandra Bhushan Kumar, Ankita Mishra, Narendra Bundela, Mohammed Abid, and Ashok Meena, officers from the Indian Civil Services, for sharing their insights and discussions during the relief and rehabilitation process in the aftermath of the tsunami, although the opinions presented here are entirely that of the authors.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Simron Jit Singh
    • 1
    Email author
  • Marina Fischer-Kowalski
    • 2
  • Willi Haas
    • 2
  1. 1.WaterlooCanada
  2. 2.Institute of Social EcologyUniversity of Natural Resources and Life SciencesViennaAustria

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