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The Burden Falls On The Poorest Societies


THE MAINSTREAM media only focus on the natural causes of disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunamis. What’s the wider context?

THE INDIAN Ocean is already the epicenter of the environmental devastation that will be caused in the near future by global warming. This part of the world has had–and will continue to have on an ever-larger scale–a regular death toll from typhoons and flooding, and associated diseases.

In particular, Bangladesh, as well as the island nations that were inundated by the tsunami, like the Maldives and the Andamans, are the societies most in peril from global warming, in the next 10 or 15 years.

So although the particular cause of this–a giant earthquake in the Indian Ocean–is a relatively rare event–the Indian Ocean, and particularly the Gulf of Bengal, is one of the main theaters for the class politics of global warming and the increasing frequency of natural disasters to play out.

I’m sure that a lot of political leaders will now say that it makes no sense to build a disaster warning system, because this was such a rare event. That may be true of earthquake-generated tsunamis. But coastal safety is an immensely important issue in this region.

It’s shocking that the geophysical warning systems and coastal civil defense systems that could have made a difference are almost entirely restricted to wealthy societies. Yet the great burden of disaster and death and economic destruction is faced by poor societies, particularly the subsistence fishing societies that ring the Indian Ocean.

What would be the minimum early warning system that people would require? In some cases, if there’s any kind of local network or organization, it wouldn’t have taken much more than a telephone call.

WHAT ARE some of the political and economic factors that play out in “natural” disasters?

THE DEATHS from the tsunami disaster are as close to a natural disaster as you get. The more typical situation in disasters like earthquakes is that people are killed by the poor quality of housing and construction–they’re killed by their poverty.

A typical earthquake or a typhoon or hurricane and flood disaster can have impacts that go on for generations. We’ve seen this in the case of Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala in Latin America over the last 20 or 30 years. People there are still recovering from the Managua earthquake or the hurricanes in Central America in 1998.

The most single important social process or phenomenon on the planet right now is urbanization. Ninety-five percent of future human population growth will be additions to the populations of Third World cities. And increasingly, large parts of that human increment are housed in the most dangerous conditions possible–in flood plains, in low-lying coastal areas, in unstable slopes.

It might have been the case that 30 years ago in some Third World cities, there was still decent, well-drained flat land available for the construction of slums or squatter settlements. Now the majority of it is occurring in seismically or geologically hazardous areas, and it’s increasing exponentially the number of people exposed to disaster.

In this region, Bangladesh has an almost unique exposure because it’s low lying. It faces a very dark future as typhoons become more frequent and intense. Although giant earthquakes and tsunamis in the Indian Ocean may be relatively rare, if you just went online and looked up Bangladesh, you would find that 20 years ago, 400,000 people drowned there.

This is going to be repeated literally every few years from now on. This is a country that is going to be increasingly under siege from flooding, with population displacement and disease and death every decade probably as large or larger as what’s occurred this week.

THERE WILL also be political factors playing out in the disaster relief effort.

IN SOME rich societies, disasters can sometimes have a positive economic effect. You get a kind of seismic Keynesianism in California, or the big federal disaster relief programs in Florida–basically pork-barrel projects for disaster.

Disasters are also frequently used as a form of urban renewal, and this might be the case now, particularly in Thailand or Malaysia, for example–where tourist resorts, but also cities themselves are constantly encroaching on traditional fishing villages or coastal villages. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see some of these not rebuilt, but supplanted by enlarged tourist facilities or projects for the military or other groups.

We can expect that in Aceh–on the northern trip of Sumatra in Indonesia, where a war of liberation has been waged–the disaster relief policies will be administered by the Indonesian army, and you can imagine how that will work. Ditto for the case of Sri Lanka, where the east coast is the scene of a 30-year-long civil war.

Then there are the kind of everyday politics relating to who the U.S. government gives money to, and which charities it favors. At the end of the day, it’s not surprising that very often, almost nothing gets down to the grassroots.

WHAT ARE the lasting consequences of this disaster?

THE ECONOMIC damage will be monumental. It will take a long time, and it may never be fully calculated–particularly, in these really poor, subsistence fishing communities, of which thousands and thousands have been affected.

But this is just part of the larger sum of their problems all across the world, as subsistence fishing communities are dying or being forced into deeper poverty by competition with, for example, factory trawler fleets of the European Union or Japan, or by the depletion of maritime biomass, or by the rise of things like large-scale commercialized shrimp farming. That’s the larger context of it.

It would be very important for people to understand that the persistent, chronic threat in all these regions comes from storm damage. And that’s being worsened by global warming and the failure to build up any kind of real network of civil defense for poor communities, or to invest simply in things like seawalls and protected fishing harbors and so on.

I believe that first of all, there needs to be a global civil defense system for natural disasters and climate events, which basically the rich countries should pay for. And secondly, and even more importantly, the rich societies that are responsible for climate change need to pay the cost of defending and saving the societies that are directly in the path of disasters.

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