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(en) Anarcho-Syndicalist Review (ASR) #40 - Editorial: The Real Tsunami Tragedy - Most Deaths Could Have Been Avoided

From Jon Bekken <iweditor@earthlink.net>
Date Wed, 2 Feb 2005 10:03:52 +0100 (CET)

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In a classic case of shutting the stable door after the horse has
bolted, newspapers and politicians around the world are producing pious
statements daily about the need to build a tsunami warning system for
the Indian Ocean like the one established forty years ago in the
Pacific. In fact, the message that a system was needed in Indonesia was
issued at a meeting of the International Coordination Group for the
Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific (IGC/ITSU) in 2001, but Indonesia
balked at the cost. Just six months ago, in June 2004, ITSU warned of
the possibility of dangerous tsunami in the Indian Ocean and again
urged establishment of an early warning system. The politicians did nothing.

Even if a system had been in place, the fact that a tsunami can travel
500km an hour means that on this occasion most Indonesian (Acesian)
victims were probably too close to the epicenter of Sunday’s earthquake
to have survived. However, with warnings ranging from 15 minutes to two
or three hours elsewhere, depending on the location, tens of thousands
of those killed in Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and Somalia could have
survived. And warnings should have been possible.

According to the December 28 editions of the British Guardian and
Swedish Expressen newspapers, the latter quoting a Thai daily, The
Nation, Thai meteorologists knew of the earthquake a full hour before
the tsunami struck, but decided not to alert people in the affected
areas “out of courtesy to the tourist industry.” A Thai meteorology
department official told the Guardian, “If we had given the warning and
then it hadn’t happened, then it would have been the death of tourism
in those areas.” If this turns out to be true, and the whistle-blower
lives long enough to testify, one can imagine the civil law suits to
follow for years to come, accompanied, one would hope (but not bet on),
by criminal prosecutions of those involved in the decision.

Like governments, business interests and the politicians they control
are a major obstacle to safeguarding the public from natural and
industrial disasters. What holds for tsunamis is true for earthquakes,
hurricanes, tornados, floods, chemical spills and bridge failures, too.
Safety measures that can often be taken to prevent the loss of human
life are omitted because corporations complain about the cost. The one
option (in some countries) that ordinary citizens have of suing for
damages afterwards is also in danger of being lost in the United States
in the name of so-called “tort reform,” which will result in public
interest attorneys not being able to recoup their legal fees, thus
allowing corporations to outspend their victims.

The two most common excuses governments in the affected Asian region
offer for their failure to follow the example set by the Pacific-rim
nations are (a) the rarity of tsunami in their part of the world, and
(b) the costs that would be involved.

Both are laughable. The rarity claim does not bear scrutiny. It is true
that tsunami are rare in the Indian Ocean and far more frequent in the
Pacific (about one every ten years), but earthquakes are very common in
the affected Asian region, and often large, because the Indian Ocean
tectonic plate collides with the Eurasian plate beneath Sumatra.

Japanese seismologists have established that tsunami will occur if an
earthquake measures over 6.3 on the Richter scale, and cause damage if
over 7.0. Professor K. S. Valdiya of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for
Advanced Scientific Research reports that a major earthquake (6 to 6.9)
hits the Andaman and Nicobar Islands approximately every eight months.
The last quake in the region to have caused a major tsunami occurred in
1945 off the coast of Pakistan in the Arabian Sea. It registered 7.8 on
the Richter scale, created waves of over six feet in Karachi, and 40
feet high along the Makran coast. The combined earthquake and tsunami
killed over 4,000 people. How frequent, how large, and how close do
they have to be?

The cost argument is even more outrageous. One relatively inexpensive
option would be to rely on existing seismology centers around the
world. From those sources, initial news of the size and location of
earthquakes – accurate information now available within less than five
minutes of their occurrence – could be linked to readings from a
regional system of tidal gauges to measure wave height, and the data
beamed to shore via satellite. Cheaper still, without the need for any
outlay on equipment, the existing centers could transmit a warning of
the possibility (although not verification) of a tsunami to
pre-designated regional locations within minutes of large earthquakes
for the cost of a few long-distance phone calls. In fact, officials at
the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawai’i (part of ITSU) did just
that on this occasion, alerting the U.S. naval base on the
British-owned island of Diego Garcia by phone, thereby averting any
casualties there – but, astonishingly, not alerting anyone else. In
what is one of the most sophisticated systems in the world, 300
earthquake sensors in Japan operate 24 hours a day, transmitting
information to six regional centers. If a tsunami is identified,
evacuation alarms are sounded and TV and radio broadcasts interrupted.
Japan spends roughly $20 million a year on the alert system.
Establishing a new regional warning system for countries bordering the
Indian Ocean – a center able to retrieve and analyze seismic and
sea-level data – would require a reliable high-bandwidth Internet
connection. There would be permanent expenditures for staffing the
system, and initial and periodic follow-up time and money required at
the grass roots level to educate the inhabitants of coastal communities
about how to interpret the information they might receive, where to
head in the event of an evacuation (not down to the beach to watch the
waves come in, for example), how to get there, and what to take with
them. Despite all that, a tsunami warning system would clearly not be
prohibitively expensive, and is certainly well within the capacity of
the region as a whole.

Bearing in mind the $20 million annual cost of the Japanese system,
consider the following U.N. estimates of current annual military
spending in some of the affected Asian countries (numbers are in U.S.
dollars): India $15 billion, Pakistan $3 billion, Thailand $2.4
billion, Myanmar/Burma $2 billion, Indonesia 1.2 billion, Sri Lanka
$800 million, and Bangladesh $680 million. (Remember, those are the
figures for just one year.) Given such colossal military budgets, it is
clear that the governments and politicians responsible for policy
decisions down the years have a lot to answer for – not least, we fear,
the lives of more than 200,000 innocent men, women and children.
— Mike Long

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