Asian tsunami: Redefining Disaster

On the second anniversary of the Asian earthquake and tsunami of 26 December 2004 it is worthwhile pondering what the entire tragedy was really all about.
Going by the numbers – over 225,000 dead, a million more displaced and impoverished or by the area affected-12 countries across two continents- the event was described as the single biggest disaster in modern history.
For the traumatized fishing communities on the coasts of South and Southeast Asia, it overturned their deeply held idea of the sea as the very source of all life. And in an world already rife with the uncertainties of conflict and the mysterious workings of global capital the Asian tsunami showed how we cannot take even the earth and the oceans for granted anymore.
In many of the communities in southern India affected by the tsunami there is a tradition of funerals being accompanied by song and dance. It is an ancient mechanism that helps people cope with their personal grief. On the day of the tsunami they died in such large numbers that in an instant all mourning became meaningless.
And yet for all its heart-rending, graphic images of death, destruction and sorrow I am still very confused about what really constitutes a disaster.  Is it about the numbers involved? Is it about the way people died or suffered? Is it about the identity of the people involved?
To just give an example of how the mathematics of mass disasters works or does not work – some three months after the tsunami the Indonesian authorities made a quiet announcement that few noticed. Apparently over 56,000 people who had gone missing since the tsunami and had been feared dead were in fact found to be alive and living in the temporary camps set up for the displaced people. It occurred to me then that if I had mourned for those 56,000 people prematurely what a waste of very high quality mourning it would have been!
This is how ridiculous the situation gets when one starts measuring disasters in terms of the numbers involved. The simple truth is that every individual is an entire, unique universe on his or her own and with the passing of every individual an entire universe collapses. For those who are afraid of impending apocalypses anywhere I have a message- the apocalypse is already over, it happened yesterday and it is happening right now. There are a million little apocalypses happening all the time. So stop searching for the BIG one and look more carefully at the little one in your immediate line of sight.
The lack of focus on the individuals caught up in disasters is however just one of the problems with the general response of the world, governments and NGOs to the Asian tsunami over the past two years. There are many other problems too.
Lack of context: One of the most obvious shortcomings of the international response to the tsunami disaster has been the complete lack of investigation or thought about what was happening to the coastal communities before the sea boiled over on 26 December 2004. In country after affected country the fact is that these communities were almost as badly off, socially and economically, before as after the tsunami.
While the specific problems generated by the tsunami are unique and need to be addressed as such, this can be done best only by taking into serious account the background in which the disaster occurred. Among the pre-tsunami factors ignored while planning the rehabilitation were the entire civil conflict in Aceh and Sri Lanka, the money and muscle power of tourism operators in Thailand and the chronic socio-economic problems of affected populations in countries like India.
The lack of understanding of history, culture and local level politics is evident in the way the thoughtless pouring of large sums of money in the name of the name of tsunami response in Sri Lanka has actually played a role in reviving the dormant civil conflict there. According to numerous local accounts and media reports in the first week after the tsunami the conflict torn island saw a remarkable thawing in relations between the Tamil and Sinhala populations who spontaneously responded to the disaster by sending aid and material help to each other.
A fortnight after the disaster the coming of large international donors with pots of ‘aid’ money (upto US$1.5 billion on offer) diverted attention from local efforts and sparked off a race between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to garner a share of the funds being dangled before them. The Chandrika Bandarnaike regime in Colombo, fearful of the political repercussions of recognizing the LTTE as the de facto civil authority in the Tamil areas, kept delaying transfer of resources to the affected areas of northeast Sri Lanka resulting in increasing bitterness among the Tiger leadership as well as the local population.
The net result of all this petty politicking has been the tragic revival of the Sri Lankan civil war after a period of absolute peace in the three years preceding the tsunami.
Identifying the ‘affected people’: Throughout the rehabilitation efforts of the past two years the government and NGO focus has been on dealing with the problems of ‘tsunami survivors’ meaning those who were ‘touched’ by the saltwater on that fateful day. All others living in the same context, however vulnerable, have been deemed ‘irrelevant’. So for example many poor communities in coastal Tamil Nadu  with very low development indicators prior to the tsunami or the thousands of refugees of the civil war in Sri Lanka living without basic necessities for long have been completely bypassed in the distribution of relief and material aid.
All this is of course apart from the active discrimination faced by low-income ‘untouchable’ Dalit communities all along the coast whose livelihoods were devastated by the tsunami but never got any compensation at all. In that sense a fantastic opportunity has been lost to use the huge sums of money pouring in after the tsunami to launch long-term social justice programs to benefit everybody concerned.
Lack of linkage with other disasters : It is quite amazing that almost all the relief and rehabilitation efforts undertaken in the tsunami affected countries have been done with little reference to other natural disasters that have taken place in recent years. Whether it is the earthquakes in Turkey and Iran or Hurricane Mitch that hit central America, there is a huge bank of experiences and knowledge of dos and don’ts that can benefit those dealing with the situation in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka or Thailand.
The Gujarat earthquake of 2001, in which over 30,000 people lost their lives also  offered ample lessons at least in what should not be done while rehabilitating survivors in India. Not one lesson was incorporated though into the post-tsunami efforts leading to similar problems as occurred in Gujarat- lack of public participation in design of rehabilitation plans, poor quality and inappropriate shelter, competition among NGOs to ‘capture’ survivor communities and of course Gujarat’s trade mark feature of discrimination against minority communities.
Another important shortcoming, in this day of globalization and instant communication, has been the complete disconnect between the rehabilitation work going on in one affected country and the other. No one in coastal India knows about what is happening in coastal Thailand or Indonesia or even Sri Lanka. Apart from the valuable lessons to be learnt from each other if there had been greater efforts in this direction this could also have been the beginning of a new South-South international solidarity movement.
Learning from the survivors: Another very disturbing aspect of the way governments and NGOs have approached the ‘affected population’ has been to look at them as completely helpless people in need of relief, rehabilitation, counseling and so on. There has been little attempt to identify and use existing local talent and capabilities for rehabilitation with the emphasis being on flying in consultants from outside on high salaries.
In Sri Lanka for example, the International Red Cross, which raised almost US$2 billion for post-Tsunami reconstruction, employed 183 expatriate “volunteers”, each worth over US$120,000 annually, but with little technical expertise, knowledge of local society, politics or culture, local languages or institutional structures. No wonder then that by the first anniversary of the tsunami the IRC had managed to build only a measly 64 of the 15,000 permanent homes it had promised to build.
There has also been very little attention paid to the skills, inherent strengths and human resources of the affected communities.
For example the Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka coasts are home to some of the world’s most skilled traditional fishermen and to treat them as ‘illiterate, uneducated, underdeveloped’ rural folk is travesty of the lowest order. Unfortunately even many city-based NGO officials operating in the tsunami hit areas were quite guilty of precisely such an approach.
As a result of such attitudes there are no programs to help the survivor community consolidate and develop their own traditional skills, and better still use these talents to make additional income or create new livelihood opportunities. It is time for the world to stop being so patronizing, become a little more humble and realize that while those who survived the tsunami do need help in many ways they also have many things to teach all of us.
Disaster as Godzilla: Thinking a bit more along these lines one feels that the fundamental problem with ‘disaster management’ and ‘disaster response’ efforts all over is the way they are fixated with the definition of the disaster as a sudden one-off calamitous event that we need special institutions, policies and even gadgets to cope with.
So in the wake of every disaster we hear of ‘rapid response’ teams and task forces being set up, the need to mobilize large amounts of resources, demands for using high technology to warn people of cyclones and tsunamis and increasing calls for the use of armed forces to deal with disasters.
Whether it is nationally elected bodies, the bureaucracy or other government agencies the sad fact is that, in many developing countries, over the years they have become defunct and in a sense quite useless when it comes to dealing with crisis of any sort. This leaves the military and the police among the few state institutions that are still relatively intact and functional. (If today even the US government talks of using the military to deal with natural disasters it is only a stark commentary on how the US too hides a ‘Third World’ within its glamorous and glossy folds.)
This is a deeply worrying trend and one with long-term negative implications for all democratic societies.  In the short run of course it is indeed a tempting proposition to pull out the military to manage a large national crisis.
But where does all this leave ordinary citizens- the ones who actually die, lose loved ones and grieve after every disaster? Are they to remain forever dependent on the arrival of ‘heroic troops’ from remote corners of the country (and globe) after every disaster?  Is there nothing that can be done at more local levels where citizens themselves are empowered to solve their own problems?
 Or for that matter what happens to all our democratic institutions if we are to use cops and soldiers all the time to solve what are essentially civilian emergencies? Why bother to have an elected government at all if their only job is send the men in uniform to do what they are supposed to manage? It is these disturbing questions that we need to ask if we are to find any long-term solutions to the problem of disasters- both natural and manmade.
Disaster and Democracy: The core perspective, which guides this approach, is one that looks at ‘disasters’ as being some kind of hidden monster or enemy out there to combat whom we need large and sophisticated weaponry. So not only is there a ‘War on Terror’ and a ‘War on Bird Flu’ going on in our world but what they want is nothing less than a ‘War on Disasters’ complete with early warning systems spying on the weather and  commandoes fighting cyclones!
But, as mentioned before, in many poor countries one does not need a tsunami or a hurricane to cause misery for that is the general state of being for a majority of citizens. Instead of rushing in large amount of resources after every disaster why not give them these resources on a regular basis well before they are hit by a natural calamity?  After all the best ‘disaster preparedness’ policy any government can come up with is one that deals effectively with all the mini and major disasters that occur in our societies on a daily basis.
There is little room though for the simple thought that a proper response is possible only when those likely to be affected are themselves properly equipped to deal with the disaster. That would call for long-term investments in human resources or basic infrastructure such as roads, energy, drinking water and health facilities- something anathema to the entire neo-liberal economic policy making that dominates global elite thinking these days.
Satya Sagar is a journalist, writer and video maker from India living in New Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected]

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