A Disaster Made So Much Worse

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Andrew Stone looks at the hypocrisy behind the tragedy.

Last June the UN's Oceanographic Commission discussed the danger of a giant tidal wave sweeping through the Indian Ocean. It concluded that the 'Indian Ocean has a significant threat from both local and distant tsunamis' and needs to set up a warning network like the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii. This was just the latest of many such proposals and the meeting broke up with no action resolved. Tens of thousands of lives were thus abandoned to the elements for the sake of the £5 million the system would have cost.

The Boxing Day earthquake, which had its epicentre 25 miles off the north western coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, could not have been predicted. A level of damage, given its measurement of 9 on the Richter scale, was inevitable. But the immediate devastation wrought would have been greatly reduced if the earthquake-proof buildings of San Francisco and Japan had been emulated in Indonesia. The reason they weren't - capitalism's destructive priorities and the poverty it inflicts on so many - runs like a damning stain through the unfolding of this historic tragedy.

The tsunami unleashed by the sudden shifting of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates hit Sumatra within minutes. But some regions - such as India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives - had two to three hours to organise an evacuation from beaches and sea fronts before the waves reached them. Tad Murty, a tsunami specialist affiliated to the University of Winnipeg in Canada, told the Independent that, with such warning, 'There's no reason for a single individual to get killed in a tsunami.'

The total lack of precautionary infrastructure left the Pacific warning centre, which had detected the earthquake and was concerned about its consequences, struggling to contact 26 countries it thought at risk. In contrast Diego Garcia, the British island stolen from its native Chagos people and handed to the US military, was warned and evacuated with no reported loss of life. Even in the face of seemingly unstoppable natural disasters, some are evidently more equal than others.

In India the inefficiency of government bureaucracy has been blamed. It has since attempted to restore its prestige by refusing aid shipments and underestimating the scale of destruction in the archipelago encompassing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. So enraged were some survivors, who had trekked for days through the jungle after their village was destroyed, that they kidnapped a senior government official and police chief. One week after the disaster they had still failed to launch a rescue mission or drop food supplies.

In Thailand government meteorological officials - who were aware of the threat within minutes - have admitted that they played down the expected impact for fear of damaging the tourist industry.

In many cases environmental degradation increased the danger of exposure to the tsunami. In Sri Lanka deforestation and coastal erosion caused by mining and pollution were to blame. Elsewhere the destruction of mangrove swamps and the depletion of coral reefs - through trawler fishing, pollution and global warming - also reduced natural defences.

If war is merely the continuation of politics by other means, the same is also apparently true of disaster relief. The military regime in Burma has continued to shun media attention; Tamils in north and eastern regions of Sri Lanka have alleged that the government has discriminated against them in the distribution of relief - a suspicion strengthened by Colombo's refusal to divulge the death toll in those districts; and in Aceh, site of a long running independence movement against Indonesian control, occupying troops continued to mount counter-insurgency operations while emergency supplies stacked up in a military hangar.

Meanwhile the major powers have been imbued with the spirit of Christmas. Unfortunately their inspiration has been the pre-reformed Ebeneezer Scrooge. Having been repeatedly leapfrogged in generosity by their citizens, the aid offered by Britain and the US is (at the time of going to press) still only £50 million and £183 million respectively. So Britain is offering less than 1 percent of what it has spent waging war in Iraq, and the US one quarter of a percent. Likewise the US's much publicised offer of 1,500 marines to the disaster-afflicted region is dwarfed by its 150,000 troops deployed in Iraq.

Geopolitical rivalries have quickly come to the fore through the relief programme, with Japan looking to assert itself as a regional power and the US attempting to marginalise the UN once more.

Relief needs to deal with immediate public health emergencies - such as the 5 million people short of clean water, food and basic sanitation - but also the cholera, chronic diarrhoea and malaria that proliferate in their wake. Long term investment in healthcare, transport and supply routes, flood defences and rebuilding are all necessary - both to counter the tsunami's effects and to prevent the next natural disaster from taking an equally unnatural toll. The need to drop Third World debt (this would greatly help Indonesia and Somalia's recovery) and to resist the global neoliberal assault on public services and food security is thus greater than ever.

In the process we will need to be vigilant that the promised aid is delivered once the tsunami recedes from the headlines. Around £1 billion has currently been pledged by governments worldwide. A similar amount was promised to Iran following the Bam earthquake in December 2003, but Iranian leader Mohammad Khatami claims that so far only £17 million has arrived. The Honduras and Nicaragua have received less than a third of the international aid promised after Hurricane Mitch ripped through their countries in 1998. And 16 years after an earthquake in Armenia families are still living in container trucks and railway carriages because their homes have not been rebuilt.

It should go without saying that the tidal gauge warning system, deemed too expensive last June, should be installed immediately. But the lessons we draw from the Boxing Day tsunami must be more fundamental if the outpouring of internationalism that has greeted this tragedy is to prevent another one.