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Alan AtKisson, 28 Dec 04

FloodsIndia2004tn.jpgThe disaster in Southeast Asia is first and foremost a human tragedy. Individual people, families, and communities have suffered and will suffer for years as a result. Future possible dangers include epidemic, diminished food supply, even errant land mines washed out to sea from Sri Lanka. Like the events in Bhopal, this is a tragedy that will play out over a generation.

In addition to the direct human impacts, the Tsunamis of '04 will also to have enormous geopolitical repercussions, for good and ill. These "aftershocks and ripple effects" can only be guessed at. But better to start thinking about them now.

Let's note at the outset, however, that despite the enormous awfulness and drama of the tsunamis -- 66,000 is the number of reported dead as I write -- this tragedy pales in comparison to the cumulative impact of catastrophes that are happening all the time, in the same region. Regular flooding in India and Bangladesh, for example, affects millions of people every year. Thousands die every year. Some people live in the tops of trees for months at a time. Early this year, two-thirds of Bangladesh was under water. (Figures and hi-res maps for 2004 available from the Dartmouth Flood Observatory.)

But the tsunamis will have far bigger impacts on the global psyche, and thus geopolitics, at least in the near term. What are those impacts likely to be?

First and most obviously, there will of the enormous disaster relief effort, as well as a renewed effort to knit the developing world more tightly into the international tsunami warning system, and other similar warning and response systems. (The Worldchanging crew is hard at work trying to help with that.) But the reasons that nations like India and Sri Lanka were not already participants -- having largely to do with lack of economic capacity, and a short-sighted lack of perceived risk -- will underscore and perhaps heighten global tensions around equity. Why should poor people be extra vulnerable to tsunamis? Or AIDS, for that matter? Climate change? Expect such questions, already pressing, to gain in force.

Of course, not only the poor were affected, but the rich as well, and this too has geopolitical implications. Very immediately in Thailand, the devastated tourist trade will take a long time to recover (if it ever does). Shell-shocked Europeans and Australians are not likely to think about a beach vacation in Southeast Asia for a few years, at least. This means that the region will lose enormous amounts of income. In southern Thailand, that income served as an economic buffer between the Thai government in the north, and the Islamic insurgency in the south. Without that buffer, tensions are likely to grow (despite the recent "peace airdrop" of origami cranes), and regional rebels are likely to exploit that fact. Expect tough times for Thailand.

There is nothing like a common disaster, and continuing common threat, to bring people together, so recovery efforts are also likely to pull India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand into tighter circles of regional economic cooperation. This region has in recent years expressed a general policy of independence from Western aid regimes, with the many strings that come attached to them. They need that aid now; but with the collapse of the beach-tourist trade and other coastal industry, they will need indigenous economic development, regional trade, and regional cooperation more than ever. Impossible to say anything about how that will play out over time, but expect it to become a theme in the region.

What else? The events of the last few days invite ruminations and speculations on a host of other issues, from the increasing vulnerability of coastal development, to the possibility of China using this event to increase its presence in the region, to global disaster preparedness in general and the need for long-term, science-and-history-based perspectives on what can happen -- and indeed has happened, many times.

But let's return to where we began, international cooperation. Let's add the role of science and technology, and ruminate.

It's clear a warning system -- which is essentially applied science and technology put to the service of international cooperation for collective security -- could have saved thousands of lives. It's clear now, in hindsight, that this should have been an international priority. "The equipment was too expensive" is a phrase that should never have to be uttered again, both because of moral obligations for basic human security regardless of national income, and because the best warning systems must involve high- as well as low-tech solutions. They must reach all the way down the chain, from seismic sensor-readers to low-tech fisherfolk, home-makers, and restaurant managers. Think pop radio, not broadband.

Tsunamis are a natural disaster. They happen quickly, and regionally. What are the cognates, at other scales of time and geography? Slow disasters can be far deadlier than quick ones (AIDS). Local disasters can also have global impacts (Chernobyl). What other kinds of disasters, at other scales, can be prevented by applying science and technology to international cooperation and collective security? Here are a couple of ideas for Worldchangers to consider.

At the scale of local, "point-source" disasters, consider the Indian fast-breeder nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu, whose intake tunnels were submerged by the waves. The safety systems worked; the reactors were shut down. What if they had not? A true nuclear disaster on India's east coast would also have region-wide, indeed global, repercussions.

So let's start with a GIS-style mapping of all the highest-risk industrial installations in the world -- places where, if things go wrong, they could go very wrong indeed, for everybody. Some combination of citizen pressure, and informal telecom-supported citizen monitoring, should be brought to bear to reduce the risk of disaster in such places, and the containment of tragedy, should disaster strike.

At the global scale, consider climate change. The wild-ride movie The Day After Tomorrow, while flawed in the science, is spot-on in depicting the relationship between the scientific community and the global polity's decision-making processes. In a word, distant. Studies are presented and slowly shredded up in the wheels of public debate.

What if there was a scientific advisory council whose sole purpose was to evaluate serious risk to vulnerable populations and ecosystems? They could then propose timelines by which preventive action must be taken, based on best available estimates. This would be a thankless job, much like reporting the weather; they would only be remembered for the times they were wrong. But if we are serious about saving lives and adapting to climate change, somebody's got to do it.

For example, millions in Bangladesh will eventually lose their land and homes. This is not going to happen gradually, but in quantum spurts over a century, as floods suddenly come and then don't recede as far or fast as they used to. Mapping such dangers, and alerting the world to them specifically -- in a way that can steer development aid, investment dollars, and the like, and put people out of harm's way -- could seriously reduce suffering. Government's increasingly do this sort of thing for other, far-less-inevitable security threats, like terrorist attack. Why not climate-change-driven disasters, which are already happening, and almost sure to increase?

Here is a scary but inescapable thought that absolutely must be reckoned with: As awful and unprecedented as they were, the giant waves in SE Asia will likely be overshadowed by far greater disasters, natural and technological, as the world system continues to grow more crowded, fragile, and vulnerable in the coming years. The world may be filled with brilliant flares of innovation, but it is also filled with disasters waiting to happen -- and some of them undoubtedly will.

No real tragedy ever has a "bright side". At best, we learn. The Tsunamis of '04 could help us learn to take the whole business of assessing risks, monitoring, and warning each other more seriously. This is a basic evolutionary survival skill that we simply must get better at.

And given current trends in climate change, and the growing concentration of population on coasts and in floodplains, we are, unfortunately, going to have many opportunities to get better at it.

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Cell phone towers, and at least one cell phone in each village, would be the cheapest warning system.
a cell phone in each village would have many other benefits.
In tourist areas, the towers & phones are already present. A widespread SMS tsunami warning SMS wouldnt be very hard.
The problem is, in Indian ocean, such events are rare (hundreds of years?) so people would Get tired of drills.

Posted by: Giordano Bruno on 28 Dec 04

Is there not a way to give them a warning system like our tornado sirens?? We systems that monitor all this type of stuff with the national weather service and stuff. If they had sirens or something of that nature it might save more lives. It may or may not happen again but the first thing that comes to mind for me is global warming. It is very scarey but a fact we all need to face.

Posted by: michelle on 28 Dec 04

That is a very compelling essay.

I agree with the tone, and with Giordano Bruno that this particular risk is crying for a technological solution. Right now I'm just angry (and have been for days) that a two hour warning wasn't used for evacuations. The resort communities in particular are (or were) thick with mobile phones. In western countries (or at least the US), an evacuation would probably have self-organized even without government involvement. A self-organized evacuation might not have been orderly, but people only needed to move (at most) a kilometer or two inland. (Part of this is education; if enough of the population knows that an undersea 9.0 is likely to produce big waves, word of a undersea 9.0 earthquake relatively nearby and across open ocean is more likely to result in chains of communications resulting in an evacuation.)

The general outline of a scientific risk advisory council seems like a good way for the UN to prove that it's grown beyond nationalistic bickering. There would still be enormous room for dispute since the risks would need to be quantified, but such a council wouldn't necessarily need to achieve full consensus, e.g. dissenters could issue their own reports if they felt the need strongly enough. Does the UN already do anything like this?

Posted by: Bill Arnold on 29 Dec 04

There are two real problems here. The first is psychological. The key fact is that events like this are once in a century. So you build a system now or in the next few years. Who will pay to maintain it? A 100 years from now the system will not work even if someone remembers that it even exists.

Second, despite the large loss of life (of which, thankfully, I know no one) it has to be asked if the cost of building and maintaining a warning system is a cost effective use of resouces. Given all the issues in the third world, I can't agree with the author that, even in hindsight, a warning system should have been or be a priority. It's simply a luxary that can't be afforded at this time.

Posted by: Daniel Thomas on 29 Dec 04

Welcome to a new age of consciousness, and destruction. Do you really see the greedy political machine of the worlds most powerful players addressing climate change and/or events such as we have just witnessed in a preemptive fashion? Not likely. Preemptive war for oil is fashionable. Preemptive policies toward climate change is still a joke rolling off of most of our well-fed politicians lips. The U.S., which is by far the largest consumer, and polluter, in the world won't do anything tangible until bitten in its proverbial ass by a pissed off Mother Nature. We'll send a little money and some food and watch the worlds sorrow on our TVs until it comes to a theatre near us. Then the real fear begins as the champion of Envirnmental Degradation (King George of Crawford) will shape policy to deal with the dizzying changes happening on our planet. In doing so he will have to admit not just 1 mistake, but countless. I don't think he's capable, nor willing.

Posted by: Lee on 29 Dec 04

Daniel Thomas,
No, you build a multi-use alert system, as cheaply as possible. For instance, it could consist of somebody (or a few people) in the country keeping track of major earthquakes, and a plan for military heliocopters flying up and down the coast with high-powered PA systems (or powered megaphones or whatever) warning of a problem. In normal times the government could use them to (uhm) get out the vote, or whatever it took to make sure that they worked.
Maybe it's a secured call tree for government officials. Whatever works locally.

Most of the time it would be used for local purposes, local disasters or potential disasters. (derailed trains with dangerous chemicals, industrial explosions/releases, ...)

A gold-plated dedicated Tsunami warning system might not even in retrospect have been appropriate, but a budget system done with 1/100th (or less) the money would be appropriate given the enormous economic losses.

Posted by: Bill Arnold on 29 Dec 04

After reading the article and the comments on it I just have to say something. What happened in SE Asia is very dramatic and terrifying, but it is and remains a normal event. Our mother nature has no considerations whatsoever and she doesn't care if people or animals die, nor if large parts of land are destroyed. Our human values don not count for her. The only laws that she respects are the fysical ones (action-reaction ...) and this is very important to realize when discussing tsunamis or other phenomena.
The only thing we can and must do is try harder to understand her and try to predict her moves. Therefore I agree totally with the article concerning the necessety for a (pragmatic) warning system and political willingness for better "damage control" in the future.
I live in Belgium, and each year we have periods of heavy rain. In some cases some roads and houses are flooded. In some cases the flooding could have been avoided because houses were built on places where people knew that it gets under water, but the government allowed construction anyway (read the local community can use the extra income tax). So who's to blaim ?
As for global warming, please remember that we think that we have an influence, but there is absolutely no conclusive evidence whatsoever that humans are responsible for the global warming. This doesn't mean that we should not do our best to avoid or minimize pollution (can you feel the discrepancy or analogy (wich one is for you to decide) with the dangers of microwave cellular phones for us?) but don't blame it all on global warming and men behind it, it might just be that the theory of polarization of water cristals in the air initiated by the eruptions of the sun is the right one. We surely believed once that the earth was flat.
I want to apologize for my English, it's a bit rusty.
Best regards, Peter.

Posted by: Peter VdP on 30 Dec 04

Here is a very simplistic point of view. If everyone in the USA pledged a few dollars from each weeks pay to a fund that pays 100% to the goverments/countries of the Tsunami victims, can you imagine the amount of money would be contributed in just one year? If I knew how to organize something like this, I surely would. Is it possible, sure- I bet most people would gladly donate a dollar, two or more each week from their pay. Add that to the money that volunteer organizations are collecting, the money the US is contributing, along with other countries and I bet we could all happily say many things would be rebuilt much faster, and all the people would have access to food, clean water, necessary medical attention etc... If someone has the means to begin a national effort within the US by organizing, then asking companies to ask their employees to donate a small amount each pay, I can assure you our very small company with only 5.5 employees would gladly participate. Just a thought. Lisa

Posted by: Lisa on 1 Jan 05

I am just appalled by how no one questions where the Moslem countries aid to this disaster are, especially Saudi Arabia and Brunei? Everyone expects the U.S. to come forward with our taxpayers money, which I am not opposed to when it comes to relief efforts such as this instead of going towards war and destruction. It has almost become an obligation by the U.S. to take care of the rest of the world. However, isn't it just fair to expect the same of richer nations, such as Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Kuwait, etc. to come forward, lead, and contribute to the suffering victims of this disaster? Indonesia is predominantly moslem. Isn't it just fair to expect the moslem leaders to aid their own?

I think this is the time for the Moslem leaders to show their "goodness" by supporting their fellow moslems. Why don't we question the role of the leaders of Saudi Arabia, which is the heart of the Moslem religion, in their humanitarian efforts towards their fellow moslems? These countries are very rich and they can certainly afford to contribute money without taking from their citizens.


Posted by: Michelle on 3 Jan 05

Michelle, I dont find fault with anything you said. I agree, it would be great if the Muslim world sent money, and they should if they can- no doubt about that. But, we are all human beings; sure we come in different colors and from different cultures- yet in the end does it really matter who contributes as long as it is something one wants to do? I look at it this way, imagine that we the USA had a disaster of that proportion, and for some reason we didnt have enough money for relief, reconstruction etc... does that mean we should depend on ourselves the most in a time of horrific need? I would hope others would step up to the plate and help us out, because it came from their hearts and out of empathy. Just because the Tsunami hit Asia doesnt mean its a Muslim problem. It affects the entire world- and I am glad that I have seen so much empathy from not only the USA, but other countries as well. This is not a political issue, its a catastrophy that has hurt and killed thousands of people. Remember we have more money than most Muslim countries, they are considered third world countries, so how CAN we expect them to donate on the same level we do? Politics play no role in this, but we as caring, loving human beings can play a large role if we choose. I chose to help, and I know many that have done the same. I will continue my donations for an undetermined time period. All I have to do is watch the news, see the tears of horror on the faces of those people that lost entire families, the thousands of children that are now orphaned and its a quick reminder that this disaster could have happened almost anywhere, including the USA- I feel for these people!

Posted by: Lisa on 6 Jan 05

By the way: Muslim Countries have contributed money- maybe not on the scale that others have, but we do what we can with what we have. I want to reiterate that in the end, does it matter how much or if the Muslim countries donate? I say no- and why would that be, because none of us are beyond a catastrophic event from happening, AND as one little boy once said, "when the lights go out we are all black." Very good analogy. That is why we have so much division in this world, because even during a catastrophic disaster, in some peoples' minds it still boils down to politics, ignorance and lack of emapthy for our fellow human beings. We are lucky to live in the US, but no one got to pick where they were to live before they were born; Its luck of the draw. Does that mean we are better than other countries as people just because we live in the US?- NO, we have an obligation to help those that are less fortunate; if we are able to help that is. If there are those that do not want to help/donate etc... then let it go, because this is NOT a time to complain about Muslims and their lack of money towards this disaster or complain about any country for that matter. The Asian people didnt ask for a Tsunami, and they deserve food, water, clean sanitation, access to medical help etc... just as we do. They are people for goodness sake.

Posted by: Lisa on 6 Jan 05



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