Vast swathes of land in Southeast and South Asia stand devastated by a tsunami triggered on December 26 by an earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, causing unprecedented human suffering and loss of property.
Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India were hit the hardest. In India, it is the Andamans and the Southern states, in particular, Tamil Nadu, that bore the brunt of the tsunami's fury. The shock and grief produced by the tidal wave is all the greater in South Asia because tsunamis -- which are gigantic sea waves caused by massive displacements due to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or submarine slides -- are rare in this region, unlike in the Pacific, which has witnessed nearly 800 of them over the past century.
That, however, does not justify the Indian government's failure to sound the alarm despite the Meteorological Department receiving definite information 90 minutes earlier about the earthquake unleashing the tidal wave. The Met Department faxed the information to former science & technology minister Murli Manohar Joshi, who lost that office seven months ago! No warning was issued. More bureaucratic bungling and conflict between official agencies followed. The home ministry on December 30 issued a false alert creating panic and disrupting relief operations. Chaos prevailed for hours till S&T Minister Kapil Sibal clarified the matter.
The earthquake causing the tsunami was the greatest anywhere during the past four decades. Its intensity was about 1,000 times greater than, say, the Latur earthquake of 1993. Its impact was indeed extensive, including collapse of buildings, uprooting of railway tracks and roads and disruption of natural drainages. The damage necessitates a high-powered large-scale relief and rehabilitation programme. It would be a shame if bureaucratic obstacles or lack of resources are allowed to come in the way of relief on the scale warranted by the calamity.
However, it would be an even greater disgrace if we fail to learn the right lessons from recent natural disasters, and thus continue to subject ourselves time and again to preventable loss of life. The first lesson is that it simply won't do to say that the latest event was exceptionally catastrophic and the damage could not have been contained or mitigated. We practised such self-deception at the time of the Orissa cyclone five years ago by calling it a 'super-cyclone.' The term was subtly employed to insinuate that no damage-limitation methods could have worked in the face of that cyclonic storm.
This is totally false. Had simple, old-fashioned, low-tech and inexpensive things like cyclone shelters been built and properly maintained, they could have saved hundreds of lives. Cyclone shelters are rugged, two- or three-storeyed concrete structures that can withstand 300 kmph winds and tidal waves. Affected village people can take refuge, and emergency food and water rations can be stored in them.
In Orissa, their maintenance was sorely neglected. There was avoidable delay too in sounding cyclone warnings and in ordering evacuation. The first casualty of the cyclone was the official Disaster Management Cell itself! On December 30 too, the person who sent false alert was DMC in-charge Secretary A K Rastogi.
Talking of tsunamis, the world has witnessed many greater ones than the latest wave, with tides as high as 20 metres, or higher. For instance, Alaska in 1958 was hit by a true monster with a height of 540 metres -- higher than Taipei-101, the world's tallest building! Similarly, India too suffered three major tsunami strikes -- in 1881, 1941 and 1945. The second wave was caused by an earthquake in the Andamans with a very high magnitude (Richter 8.5).
The latest earthquake was detected in time by the Pacific Tsunami Early Warning System but there was no address in the Indian Ocean region to which the information could be communicated. This lacuna must be filled: all Indian Ocean states, including India, should join the 26-member Pacific System.
A second lesson is that natural disasters are natural only in their causation. Their effects are socially determined and transmitted through mechanisms and arrangements which are the creation of societies and governments. Natural disasters are not socially neutral in their impact. Rather, they pick on the poor and the weak, who are far more vulnerable than the privileged and the well-provided for. Consider the following:
- The United States and Europe are prone to disasters like earthquakes. Yet, according to the environmental research group, Earthscan, earthquakes killing more than 10,000 people have not occurred in them, only in the Third World.
- Hurricanes and cyclones frequently hit the East Coast of the US. But the toll they claim is incomparably smaller than the havoc caused by similar events in Bangladesh, India and the Philippines.
- The average natural disaster kills 63 people in Japan. But in Peru, the average toll is 2,900 -- or 46 times higher.
- Around the same time as Latur, California was hit by an earthquake of a magnitude 100 times more powerful. But only one person died in the US, while 11,000 to 13,000 people perished in Latur.
- When Hurricane Elena hit the US in 1985, only five people died. But when a cyclone slammed Bangladesh in 1991, half a million people were killed.
The reason why many more poor people from the Third World die in natural disasters has nothing to do with the intrinsically deadlier nature of the calamity itself. Rather, the poor are socially and physically vulnerable -- being forced to live in congested, overcrowded and unsafe conditions in dangerous areas.
The typical medical and relief infrastructure in the Global South is hopelessly inadequate and usually the first to crumble under the impact of a calamity. Above all, emergency relief provision -- especially of absolute necessities such as shelter, food and water -- is appallingly bad.
A third lesson is that governance has a great deal of bearing on how a society copes with natural disasters. If there is transparency in official decision-making, the toll tends to be much lower. This is especially the case where governments are responsive to people, and where early warnings are sounded, and accurate and adequate advice and information is disseminated about the availability of rescue and relief services, emergency telephone numbers and addresses, and there is stocking of provisions, including medicines.
This does not happen in most Third World countries. Many are extremely hierarchical in their social structures; their rulers feel no obligation to disseminate information and advice to the underprivileged. These countries are also marked by poverty and paucity of resources such as radio receivers or telephone connectivity. The paucity leads to denial of access to valuable information. Human life is wantonly lost. The poor suffer the most. The scale of damage, whether social, physical or environmental, is always socially determined.
A fourth lesson is that many Third World societies are severely under-regulated for safety. Either they have no laws on zoning of residential and commercial activities, nor environmentally sound building codes. Or, such regulations are routinely violated. For instance, millions are forced to live in unsafe shanties simply because they cannot afford a legal title to secure shelter. They squat and create a slum --using unsafe, sub-standard and flimsy materials, which give way when disaster strikes. The poor are often compelled to use inflammable goods like plastic which magnify the potential damage.
In most Southeast Asian societies, there are no laws against constructing buildings as close to the coastline as the owner wants. In India, there is a stipulation under the Coastal Zone Regulations that no permanent structure should be constructed within 500 metres of the high-tide line. But this is often openly flouted by hotels, shops, prawn hatcheries, and private house-owners.
In recent years, growing pressure of commercialisation has led to the proliferation of construction activity in seaside resorts right up to the high-tide water-mark, leaving no safety margin whatever. This is especially true of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, including important and already congested resorts like Phuket. These activities -- all in pursuit of a fast buck from the tourist trade -- are downright predatory in nature. They destroy highly effective natural shields and buffers like mangroves, and create new risks and dangers -- with disastrous consequences.
An integral part of any agenda to reduce risk, improve safety and deal rationally with natural calamities must oppose such predatory interests and promote awareness of the need for public action. This is itself inseparable from a larger agenda to make governments more democratic -- and more accountable to the public. The latest tsunami was bad news. But more tsunamis could hit India in future. So will other natural calamities. We must learn how to cope with them -- by internalising the lessons just discussed and by joining the Pacific Early-Warning System. Failure to do will be unforgivable.
Postscript: Maldives has declared a state of emergency after the tsunami flooded two-thirds of the capital, Male. This is a grim reminder of the imminent danger from global warming for the South Asian region. Male is only about three feet above sea level and a four foot-high wave of water submerged it and many of the 1,200 coral islands that comprise the country.