Western Governments can do more to help tsunami victims

Like many others I have been shocked and horrified by the current tragedy that has struck hundreds of thousands throughout Asia. I have a hard time comprehending the scale of the disaster, and indeed it grows day by day. I have to say that I could not assimilate news of the event for the first day and a half. I saw the newspaper headlines which overwhelmed me and I knew I could not take in the horrible nature of what had just happened. Finally, I talked about it with some friends who had previously invited me over for Boxing Day dinner. We only briefly talked about it; about the people and places we have seen and met in our travels through south east Asia. The day after that meeting with friends, I still couldn’t swallow what had happened. Indeed, I had to let myself be distracted…

Five days after the initial horror I am able to only just begin to digest the scope of the disaster; the numbers of dead who have only begun to be counted, and a human toll which continues to rapidly rise. However, amid all the talk of relief effort and foreign aid, I can’t help but think about how our Western governments need to multiply its immediate efforts at least one hundred times over, in addition to making more long term structural changes. Thinking about this has caused me to review a few things that I think the West could do to provided both immediate and long term relief to the current disaster. They range from the very simple and practical, to major changes and reforms that people have been already mobilizing around for some time.

New reports confirm well over 120,000 dead. The WHO estimates that 5-million will be displaced and in urgent need of food, water and basic sanitation. Tens of thousands more may die of disease and hunger unless there is immediate aid responses on the many different levels of crisis.

So far, the US has pledged a commitment of $35 million (USD). This amount is an increase from 15 million, and came in the wake of criticism from UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland who characterized early aid efforts announced by the US and other Western countries as “stingy.”

In addition, here is a quick survey of other international humanitarian aid contributions as of Wednesday, Dec. 29th:

China has so far provided 21.63 million yuan (2.7 million USD). Ottawa has pledged a total of 40 million (33 million USD). New Zealand has increased its aid package to 5 million NZ dollars (3.55 million USD). The Australian government’s support so far is 35 million dollars (26.9 million USD). South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon announced his government will send 1.6 million US dollars to the affected countries. Singapore has joined the effort by offering about 2 million Singapore dollars (1.2 million USD). And the European Union has pledged some 30 million euros (40.8 million USD) in emergency aid. And there are many more donor countries and organizations.

Here is another survey of emergency response teams and of the kind of disaster management coordination that is taking place:

The United Nations has set up a disaster assessment and coordination office to offer assistance, send aid to the area and call for more donations. The International Committee of the Red Cross has sent a cargo plane from Kenya to Sri Lanka carrying 105 tons of supplies for the basic needs of 50,000 people hit by the disaster.

The Pentagon has dispatched an aircraft carrier and other military assets to the region to make assessments.

Canada is sending a plane load of relief supplies to Indonesia. In addition, Canada is sending a 12-member reconnaissance team to make recommendations on whether Canada’s rapid disaster response team should be deployed. The advance team will be made up of personnel from Canada’s Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), foreign affairs and the Canadian International Development Agency. The rapid disaster response team is a 200-member unit, which can operate a mobile command centre, a medical facility, and water purification equipment capable of producing 100,000 liters of clean drinking water. However, the Canadian government is already being questioned as to why it hasn’t sent the team already.

New Zealand will send a 10-member team to the Thai resort of Phuket to help identify bodies and a Royal New Zealand Air Force transport aircraft left Tuesday to work with the Australian air force on a relief mission. The New Zealand government has also donated 500,000 NZ dollars (355,000 USD) to the Red Cross for aid.

Singapore has airlifted relief and medical supplies to Medan, Indonesia, and more relief supplies are scheduled to be airlifted to other affected countries in the coming days.

France sent a chartered plane to Colombo with about 100 doctors, rescue specialists and communications experts, along with six tons of equipment, including drugs and a field medical post.

Japan has also sent a 20-member medical team, including four physicians and seven nurses, to southern Sri Lanka and said more aid is on the way.

However, I believe that more immediate, preventative, and long term efforts could be made. This isn’t to undermine the tremendous effort and coordination that is already happening on behalf of many courageous individuals, organizations and countries. But, if our governments could mobilize resources, the media, and in some cases popular support, like they do for illegal wars of conquest and occupation, tens of thousands more lives could possibly be saved.

To provide just one grotesque disparity, global military expenditure and arms trade form the largest spending in the world at over $950 billion in annual expenditure. The U.S. military budget request for Fiscal Year 2005 alone is $420.7 billion. Surly we can spare a fraction of this madness to save those in need. Or, as US Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy said yesterday in a BBC interview responding to the US donation, “We spend $35 million before breakfast in Iraq”.

One measure that, if taken, could help prevent deaths caused by natural disasters such as tsunamis would be the effective application of early warning systems. The Economist reports that “America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has installed a network of seven pressure detectors along the Pacific’s bed. These transmit data to buoys on the surface, which in turn relay the information to NOAA by satellite. On the other side of the ocean, Japan has a chain of 14 tsunami detectors off its coasts.”

An absolutely shocking revelation however, is the acknowledgment that American scientists detected the tremors that caused this massive devastation and loss of human life. They knew within minutes of detecting the tremors that there would be a quake. However, they say that they had no way of way of alerting those countries who were about to be hit by the resulting waves.

The Washington Times reports that the federal alert center in Honolulu that warns Pacific countries about approaching tsunamis detected the earthquake off the coast of Indonesia. However, absence of an alert system in Asia meant information could not be sent out fast enough to prompt immediate evacuations.

“There’s always frustration in knowing that some thing could have been done, and in this case, there would have been the potential to issue some warnings to people in Sri Lanka and southeastern India … and save many lives, if a proper warning system had been in place” said Ken Hudnut, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, Calif. So, a proper warning system should be one outcome of this tragedy.

As for preventative measures, The Economist notes another possible option, a low-tech way of reducing potential casualties from tsunamis. This would be to teach coastal dwellers to recognize the signs that a tsunami is imminent. The signs include strong and prolonged ground shaking which would suggest to flee immediately to higher ground.

Despite the options above, I still believe that we can do so much more to alleviate the pain and suffering that is currently being inflicted upon the hundreds of thousands who have been hit by this disaster.

War, racism, poverty and environmental disasters spur millions of people to flee their homes. In response to the global migration of peoples Western governments should open their borders for those seeking refuge. Perhaps this is wishful thinking in light of the anti-immigrant and anti-muslim hysteria that has plagued Western powers, even prior to 9-11. However, if imagining how a good society should respond to such catastrophes, and lives are to be saved, this is a measure to be taken. Governments should provide hotels, housing, sheltered stadiums, school gyms and other public places to house, clothe, feed and treat people medically. Refugees would ideally stay until proper supports were in place for them to go back. Or, alternatively, just stay if they want to… Again, these are things that should happen, it is shameful that this has not been proposed by one Western government.

Interestingly, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has called for a debt repayment moratorium for Indonesia and Somalia, two countries hit by the tsunami sparked tidal waves.

“Of the affected countries, Indonesia and Somalia have international debt obligations with the Paris Club,” Schroeder said. “That is why Germany will propose … helping both countries in the short term with a debt moratorium.”

Germany will propose a repayment moratorium at a January meeting of the club, which groups 19 lending nations, including the United States, Japan, Russia and several European countries.

But rather than a moratorium, immediate cancellation of all debt, with no obligation to ever pay it back should be the outcome. First for those countries hit by the tsunami. Then for countries suffering the same scale of disaster, wether man made or natural, like Darfur in the Sudan. Then for all third world countries who have suffered similar disasters in recent years. Then finally, once these transitions have become manageable, a cancellation of all third world debt.

Why cancelation of debt? As the UK Jubilee Debt Campaign answers, “Poor countries need a lot of investment and giving aid, whilst simultaneously enforcing debt repayments, is to give with one hand whilst taking with the other. In fact, debt cancellation is more reliable than aid, as it can’t be switched off when the political climate changes. The reality is that poor countries need both debt cancellation and increased aid to meet the huge challenges they face.”

However, the long term impacts of this disaster will be felt for generations to come. Once the immediate situation is manageable, every effort should be made to restructure international trade relations to put poorer countries on equal footing with rich countries. This will go against the predominate neo-liberal view that developing countries need to compete on the international market to gain their equal footing. Poorer countries will have to implement interventionist policies for their own development vision. International financial institutions like the World Bank, IMF and WTO should let them, without penalty.

This most recent quake, a magnitude of 9.0, was the Earth’s biggest in 40 years. It sent giant waves up to 10m high crashing ashore in countries all around the Indian Ocean. It swept away people and buildings. And, as I write, there are reports of thousands more people fleeing coastal areas due to new tsunami warnings. Do we need another disaster, of even larger, more devastating proportions to finally motivate us to change our world for the better? In fact, as this and previous environmental and man-made disasters testify, any of these changes will be too late. One death is, and has been too many. Our governments have a responsibility. I hope we can make them accountable and affect fundamental institutional change for the creation of participatory societies, in the coming years, so as to soften future human calamities, such as these, wherever they may happen.

Leave a comment