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SO-CALLED “NATURAL” DISASTERS
Part II. The Need for a Global Disaster-Relief Agency
James S. Henry
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Saturday, January 01, 2005

SO-CALLED “NATURAL” DISASTERS
Part I. Overview
James S. Henry

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_40672941_afp_meulaboh203_1 For the second year in a row, December comes to a close with a dramatic reminder of the precariousness of daily life in the developing world -- and the continuing failure of the international community to provide adequate early warning systems, pre-crisis funding,  and rapid, effective global relief for the victims of so-called “natural disasters”  -- most of which are actually quite predictable, at least in the aggregate.

_40669633_sumatra_andaman_map203 This year, on December 26, 2004, it was the 9.0Rs earthquake off the western coast of northern Sumatra, Indonesia’s second largest island, the fifth largest earthquake recorded since 1900.

_39676201_iran_bam2_203 One year ago to the day, on December 26, 2003, the disaster in question was the 6.6Rs earthquake that devastated the city of Bam in southeast Iran, at a cost of  26,500 lives, 25,000 injured and 80,000 homeless.

The death toll from this year's Sumatra quake is likely to exceed 150,000, with thousands of people still missing, several hundred thousand who have been seriously injured,  and more than five million -- most of whom were impoverished to begin with -- suffering from thirst, hunger, homelessness, lost employment,  and the threat of mass epidemics.

_40669211_cuddalore_ap Furthermore, as we were also reminded in Bam, among the worst consequences of such catastrophic events are the longer-term traumas associated with disease, losing friends,  family, fellow citizens, livelihoods, communities, and whole ways of life. 

As usual -- and as was true in the case of 9/11, for example --   much of the initial media coverage of this Sumatra tsunami has focused on body counts, other dire visible consequences, and the massive relief effort that has followed.

That is to be expected. But before our attention span drifts too far off in the direction of some other new Third World calamity, it may be helpful to step back and examine some of the systematic factors that contribute to the high costs of such mishaps over and over again, and the extraordinary costs of this "natural" tsunami disaster in particular. 

Our overall theme is that there is really no such thing as a “natural disaster” per se. This is not to say that man-made forces were responsible for Saturday’s tsunami.  But, as discussed below, the degree to which any such event results in a social and economic “disaster” is often to a great extent under our control. 

In the case of this particular tsunami,  its high costs:

  1. Were entirely foreseeable, at least in a “sometime soon” sense, based on both long-term and recent experience with tsunamis in the Indonesian arena;

  1. Were actually foreseen by several geological experts, some of whom have been advocating (unsuccessfully) an Indian Ocean tsunami early warning system for years;

  1. Could have been substantially mitigated if US, Japanese, and other scientists around the globe who monitor elaborate earthquake- and tsunami-warning systems, and had ample warning of this event, had simply shown a reasonable degree of human concern, imagination,  and non-bureaucratic initiative;

  1. Might have been avoided entirely with a relatively modest investment in tsunami “early warning systems” for Indonesia and the Indian Ocean.

Furthermore, the global response to this horrific disaster has been long on the size of aid pledges, dignitary press conferences, and “oh – the horror” press coverage. 

_40676013_ap_aid300 It has been conspicuously short on actual aid getting through to the front lines. Today, almost a week after the disaster, aid efforts are well-funded, but they remain sluggish, disorganized, and ineffective, with at least as many additional lives in jeopardy right now for want of aid as perished in the original waves.

This is partly explained by the sheer difficulty of getting aid through to remote regions like northern Sumatra.  But, as explained below, it is also due to political factors, and the fact that the world community still runs its humanitarian relief efforts like a “pick-up” softball game. 

Fortunately, this particular crisis seems to have captured the attention of the world's donor community. At this point, with more than $2 billion in aid pledged by governments, multilateral institutions, and _40678585_ap_coffins300more than 50 private relief organizations,  the real problem is not money, but organization.

But we may want to demand that the UN, the US Government, the EU, and all these relief organizations get their acts together, and establish a permanent, well-run, well-funded global relief organization that can move more quickly the next time around. Along the way, they should also pay far more attention to preventive systems that can help save the future victims of such disasters, before all the relief becomes necessary.

                            © James S. Henry, Submerging Markets™, January 05

January 1, 2005 at 05:29 PM | Permalink

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Part I. Overview
James S. Henry
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