Tsunami Teachings: Reflections for the New Year

Gaia could not have picked a more appropriate time and place to send us a message of her hidden powers, and the message that we are Indians and Indonesians, Sri Lankans and Swedes, Thai’s and Maldivians only secondarily – we are first and foremost citizens and children of the Earth sharing a common fate of a shared disaster, and a common desire to help and heal.

The Christmas – New Year holidays bring the entire world to Asia’s beaches. The Earth quake induced Tsumani on 26th December in the Indian Ocean became a global tragedy because it impacted not just the Asians, but visitors from across the world, including Swedes, who had come to holiday on Asia’s sunny beaches.

As 2004 gives way to 2005, nature’s fury in the Indian Ocean fills minds and hearts of everyone in every corner of the earth. And while the immediate tragedy faced by millions must be our first response, there are long term lessons the Tsunami brings to us. We need to listen to Gaia.

The first lesson is about development in coastal regions. Over the past few days of market driven globalisation, respect for fragility and vulnerability of coastal ecosystems has been sacrificed for hotels and holiday resorts, shrimp farms and refineries. Mangroves and coral reefs have been relentlessly destroyed, taking away the protective barriers in the face of storms, cyclones, hurricanes and Tsunamis.

When we carried out a study of the Orissa cyclone in 1999 which killed 30,000 people, we found that the destruction was much more severe where the mangroves had been cut down for shrimp farms and an oil refinery. The people’s movement against industrial shrimp farming led to a Supreme Court order to shut down the farms within 500 m of the coastal line in accordance with the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification. As the order of the Hon’ble Justice Kuldip Singh and Saghir Ahmed stated :

“Before parting with this judgement, we may notice the “Dollar” based – argument advanced before us. It was contended before us by the learned counsel appearing for the shrimp aquaculture industry that the industry has achieved singular distinction by earning maximum foreign exchange in the country. Almost 100 per cent of the produce is exported to America, Europe and Japan and as such the industry has a large potential to earn “Dollars”. That may be so, but the raised production of shrimp is much less than the wild- caught production. The report shows that world production of shrimp from 1982 to 1993 as under:

World production of Shrimp (Thousands of Metric Tons)Year Farm Raised Wild Caught Total1982 84 1652 17861983 143 1683 16261984 174 1733 19071985 213 1908 21211986 309 1909 22181987 551 1733 22641988 604 1914 29181989 611 1832 24431990 633 2+68 28011991 690 2118 28081992 721 2191 29121993 610 2100 2710

It is obvious from the figures quoted above that farm-raised production of shrimp is of very small quantity as compared to wild caught. Even if some of the shrimp culture farms which are polluting the environment, are closed, the production of shrimp by environmentally friendly techniques would not be affected and there may not be any loss to the economy specially in view of the finding given by NEERI that the damage caused to ecology and economics by the aquaculture farming is higher than the earnings from the sale of coastal aquaculture produce. That may be the reason for the European and American countries for not permitting their seacoasts to be exploited for shrimp culture farming. The UN report shows that 80% of the farm cultures – shrimp comes from the developing countries of Asia.”

However, instead of obeying the order, the shrimp industry tried to undo the ecological laws for protection of coastal zones by influencing government to exempt the shrimp industry from environmental laws. This subversion of environmental laws to protect coastal zones by the shrimp industry has definitely had a role in increasing the destruction caused by the Tsunami. Every acre of the shrimp farm has an ecological footprint of 100 acres in terms of destruction of mangroves and land and sea destroyed by pollution. Every dollar generated by exports of shrimps leaves behind ten dollars of ecological and economic destruction at the local level.

Nagapattinam, the worst impacted zone by the Tsunami was also the worst impacted by industrial shrimp farms. The indigenous tribes of Andaman and Nicobar, the Onges, the Jarawas, the Sentinelese, the Shompen, who live with a light ecological foot print had the lowest casualities even though in the Indian subcontinent they were closest to the epicenter of the Earthquake. The Government of Kerala, observing that the Tsunami left less destruction in regions protected by mangroves than barren and exposed beaches has started a Rs. 350 million project for insulating Kerala’s coasts against tidal surges with mangroves (Ref : After the disaster, Kerala’s green drive, Indian Express, January 3, 2005).

Hopefully governments will learn a lesson that the earth has tried to give – “development” that ignores ecological limits and the environmental imperative can only lead to unimaginable destruction.

The second lesson that Tsunami teaches us is that a world organized around markets and profits, forgetting nature and people, is ill equipped to deal with such disasters. In spite of us fooling ourselves with living in an “information age” and in “knowledge economies”, the knowledge of the 8.9 Richter Earthquake could not be communicated by the U.S geological survey to the countries of the Indian Ocean to take timely action to save lives.

While the stock markets of the world react instantaneously to signals, while the entire out sourcing economy of information technologies is based on instantaneously communication, it has taken the world days to count how many died, how many have become homeless.

Each day the number rises – beginning with 20,000 on 26th, it has reached 1,50,000 by 1.1.2005. The Tsunami tells us we do not live in an information age based on “connectivity” we live in an age of ignorance, exclusion and disconnect. Animals and indigenous communities had the intelligence to anticipate the Tsunami and protect themselves.

The information technology embedded 21st century cultures lacked the Gaian intelligence to connect to the earthquake and Tsunami in time to protect themselves. We need to revisit our dominant concepts of intelligence and information and take lessons from Gaia about living intelligently on the planet.

It has taken a tragedy of this scale that has devastated the coastline embracing the Indian Ocean to remind us that the IT revolution has evolved to serve markets, but it has bypassed the needs of people. An article in the Indian media stated that the market will not be affected by the disaster. This too, reflects the disconnect between the health of the “market” and the health of the planet and her people.

A third lesson I draw from the Tsunami is preparing for other environmental disasters in the making, including anticipation of the impact of climate change. When the rising waters submerged the islands of Maldives, I felt nature was telling us, this is what sea level rise will look like, this is how entire societies will be robbed of their ecological space to live in peace on the planet.

While the U.S administration and environmental skeptics like Bjorn Lomberg continue to argue that the rich north cannot afford to take action to reduce CO2 emission and work towards reducing the impact of climate change, the Tsunami shows us how severe the costs of continuing business as usual can be. The Tsunami should wake up Lomberg from his slumber of the self-manufactured “Copenhagen Consensus” that the impact of climate change will not be severe enough to call for a shift in economic policy and economic paradigms. Lomberg should ask the people of Maldives whether they accept the inevitability of irreversible sea level rise due to fossil fuel induced by climate change.

Besides the massive mobilization of relief for the victims of the Tsunami, we need immediate action for future justice for the future victims of climate change. As a leader of the Alliance of Small Island States said during the negotiations on the UN climate change treaty “The strongest human instinct is not greed? it is survival and we will not allow some to barter our homelands, our people, and our cultures for short-term economic interest.”

The incomplete work of climate justice needs to be speeded up in light to the Tsunami. The Indian Ocean countries will face the impacts of displacement due to coastal flooding caused by the sea level rise. The Tsunami provides a warning to prepare for the future based on earth justice, not the narrow, selfish calculus of the market.

The next disaster will not necessarily be a Tsunami. It could be a flood caused by dam-induced earthquake on a Ganges where the Tehri dam is being built on a seismic fault. Water from the dam will be taken hundreds of miles to Delhi to be privatized by Suez, the worlds biggest water marketeer. The 260.5 metre high dam will impound 3.22 million cubic metres of water which will extend up to 45 kms in the Bhagirathi valley and 25 kms in the Bhilangana Sq.kms.

If the dam triggers an earthquake, in less than an hour and a half, a 260 meter high wall of water twenty times higher than the Tsunami would wide out the holy cities of Rishikesh and Haridwar, in 8 hours, a 10 meter high water wall would impact Meerut, 214 kms downstream, in 12 hours, a 8.56 meter high surge would impact Bulanshahar, 286 kms away.

Lessons for disaster preparedness from the Tsunami need to address all the disasters waiting to happen as a consequence of models of development which have brushed ecological costs and vulnerability aside for short term growth. The real disaster preparedness is to reduce environmental vulnerability and increase ecological resilience instead of increasing environmental vulnerability and risks by externalizing environmental costs from the calculus of economic growth.

The final lesion I draw from the biggest tragedy of our times is that the public good and social responsibility of governments cannot be sacrificed for private profit and corporate greed. Food, water and medicine are the most urgent needs of the survivors of the Tsunamis. At a time when public systems need to mobilize to deliver these essential needs, corporate globalisation is rushing ahead with their corporatisation and privatization. While India and other countries needs low cost generic drugs dealing with the public health emergency the Tsunami has left behind, the government passed a patent ordinance which will prevent the production of low cost medicine from 1.1.05.

The incongruity between the world of corporate globalisation, of WTO imposing TRIPS, and the planet of people has been ironically brought forth by the Tsunami. India’s patent ordinance was passed on the same day as the disaster hit our coasts, showing that corporate globalisation is driven by forces that are unable to respond to what happens to real people and their lives. The Tsunami for me is a wake up call for humanity – we cannot continue to sleep walk in the mad rush for privatization of public goods.

If all food and water is reduced to a commodity controlled and freely traded by global corporations for profit, how will society feed the hungry, how will society provide water to the thirsty? The vulnerability of millions calls for robust public systems to provide food and water, health care and medicine. The demands for public goods and services for relief and rehabilitation pull us in a totally different direction than the demands of privatisation from the WTO and World Bank.

The Tsunami reminds us we are not mere consumers in a market place driven by profits. We are fragile interconnected beings inhabiting a fragile planet. This is message for responsibility and duty to the earth and all people. The Tsunami reminds us that we are all interconnected through the earth. We are earth beings – compassion, not money, is the currency of our oneness. Above all it brings a message of humility. That in the face of nature’s fury, we are powerless.

The Tsunami calls on us to give up arrogance and to recognize our fragility. In the Tsunami, it was not just waves of the sea, which collided with the coast. Two world views collided – the worldview of free markets and corporate globalisation left useless and helpless in dealing with environmental disasters, it has contributed to and the worldview of earth democracy in which people reach across the worlds as one humanity to rebuild lives and prepare for an uncertain future on a fragile planet living with full awareness of our environmental vulnerabilities and responsibilities and our ecological interconnectedness.

While we pour our hearts out to the victims of the disaster, the most important long-term relief we can provide is to reduce the ecological footprint on our fragile planet, and reduce our ecological vulnerabilities. Ecological resilience, not economic growth, will be the real measure of human survival in these uncertain times.

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