by Andy Pollack

On December 27, the day after the Indian Ocean earthquake and the devastating sea surges, or tsunamis, it caused, the New York Times ran an abysmal editorial whose tone was along these lines: “That’s nature—nothing to be done about it.”

Of course that’s not true. If governments were concerned about the lowly and the poor, the ones most affected by such disasters, they could issue timely warnings and evacuate endangered areas. Late last summer, when hurricanes hit the Caribbean, we saw the contrast between governments that care and take timely measures (Cuba, where there were hardly any losses of human life) and those that don’t (post-Aristide Haiti, where thousands died).

It’s interesting to note that governments in Asia did pay attention to the well-connected. For example, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was airlifted by Sri Lanka government troops from the roof of a hotel at the health spa where he was vacationing. Undoubtedly, access to that roof was strictly limited.

On December 28, the very next day the New York Times editors had changed their tune.

This time they wrote: “No human power could have stopped the wall of water that washed over low-lying coasts from Indonesia to East Africa on Sunday. But human foresight could, and should, have mitigated the resulting tragedy…That death toll could have been cut at least in half if the affected region had had the same kind of international warning network the United States has set up to protect the adjacent Pacific basin. 

“Of all the world’s vulnerable regions, only the Pacific has such a warning network in place. Sunday’s events suggest the value of extending such a system. Within 15 minutes of the earthquake, the Pacific warning center in Honolulu issued alerts to its member countries. These included Thailand and Indonesia, which were unfortunately so close to the original epicenter that towering walls of water were already claiming their first victims. But another two hours remained before 40-foot seas crashed into Sri Lanka, and three to four hours before the huge waves reached southern India. That could have given people in danger time to escape to high ground—if they had been told in advance and evacuation plans were in place. Such an avoidable tragedy should never be allowed to happen again.

“In a 21st-century age of global Internet, satellite and cell phone communications, there can be no excuse for failing to make sure that lifesaving information reaches everyone in the path of these killer waves. Once a strong earthquake has been detected and analyzed, the waves’ trajectories can be reliably predicted, and timely and specific warnings can be transmitted to those areas lying in their expected paths…

“There are certain to be additional tsunamis in this region in the future, although the historical record suggests that it may be several decades before the next one strikes. That time should be used to create a reliable warning system that reaches all coastal areas. Washington, which has already offered ‘all appropriate assistance’ to the affected countries, is uniquely qualified to provide the needed technical and humanitarian help.”

Will such changes happen? Well, look at the total lack of changes since the August 2003 blackout in the U.S. We can only be sure something will change if working people take up this cause, if unions, farmers’ groups, etc., make common cause and demand across borders that the data—and resources to act on that data—be shared and used for planning to save lives and homes.

Let the newly reunited world union federations, the Social Forums on every continent, the antiwar movements, and others raise their voices together and demand an end to the genocidal policy of economic and environmental anarchy (i.e., of capitalism)!

Roland Garret has added an appropriate further comment:

When one thinks of the coming catastrophes due to global warming caused by capitalist production and the drive for profit, the survival of the human species is in doubt, without the creation of a democratic world system—social, political, and economic—that puts the world’s species first, the basis of our very existence, as the people of the world share the world’s wealth in harmony with nature.”

Given what’s said below about the paltry $15 million the U.S. plans to spend—and given that other media reports say some government agencies have already spent their remaining budgets (stingy as those budgets are) in the last couple of days, it seems we should be in the streets demanding billions for relief, not a penny for war! Especially because all predictions are that the death toll could double without adequate relief. Tens of thousands of lives could be saved.

Maybe we could call on the international antiwar groups who linked up twice around international antiwar days to call coordinated pickets at every U.S. embassy demanding transfer of funds from bombing Falluja to tsunami relief, and on the same day(s) picket federal buildings around the U.S.

The following commentary, dated December 28, is from ActionLA

Asia Quake: Casualties of a policy of war, negligence, and corporate greed

While earthquakes and tsunamis are natural disasters, the decision to spend billions of dollars on wars of conquest while ignoring simple measures that can save human lives is not.

Asian officials conceded Monday (December 27, 2004) that they failed to issue broad public warnings immediately after a massive undersea earthquake in Indonesia. [Such warnings] could have saved countless lives from the subsequent giant waves that smashed into nine countries.

The U.S. had supposedly agreed to build a warning system a long time ago for the region. “Tsunameters” cost only $250,000 each. Instead, the U.S. military and NOAA spent billions of dollars to build military bases in the Indian Ocean, and a sonar detection system to detect submarines.

The response of the U.S. government to this latest disaster is to offer a paltry $15 million “aid package.” To put this in perspective, this is one-tenth of one percent of what Washington has spent thus far on the war against the people of Iraq, and earned a criticism from a UN aid official, who said wealthy nations were “stingy” about helping quake victims.

Lee Siu Hin

PeaceNoWar, ActionLA

(The following is from the Chinese news agency Xinhua.)

Warnings might have reduced tsunami toll

BEIJING, Dec. 28—Asian officials conceded Monday that they failed to issue broad public warnings immediately after a massive undersea earthquake in Indonesia, which could have saved countless lives from the subsequent giant waves that smashed into nine countries.

But governments insisted they did not know the true nature of the threat because there was no international system in place to track tidal waves in the Indian Ocean—an area where they are rare—and they can’t afford to buy sophisticated equipment to build one.

Lalith Weeratunga, Sri Lanka’s top relief coordinator, said officials had also failed to learn from floods in June last year that ravaged the country’s south and claimed hundreds of lives.

“We had been very complacent,” Weeratunga said. “People had been predicting earthquakes, tidal waves, and we even felt a few tremors recently, but obviously we did not take the warnings seriously.”

“Even after that, we had not learnt a lesson,” said Weeratunga, a senior civil servant who is also the prime minister’s top aide.

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake [occurred when] huge geological plates [shifted] beneath the sea northwest of Sumatra island, causing a massive and sudden displacement of millions of tons of water.

Indonesian officials said they had no way of knowing that the earthquake had caused the tsunamis, or how dangerous they might have been.

Scientists said seismic networks in the region recorded Sunday’s earthquake, but without wave sensors in oceans that would have tracked the path of the waves, there was just no way to determine the direction a tsunami would travel.

An international warning system in the Pacific was started in 1965, the year after tsunamis associated with a magnitude 9.2 temblor struck Alaska in 1964. It is administered by the U.S-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Member states include all the major Pacific rim nations in North America, Asia, and South America, as well as the Pacific islands, Australia, and New Zealand.

Tsunamis occur only occasionally, but they are much rarer in the Indian Ocean than the Pacific, where one occurs every few years.

(The following statement is by Sara Flounders and Dustin Langley for the International Action Center.)

55,000 Dead: The Role of U.S. Criminal Negligence on a Global Scale
Casualties of a policy of war, negligence, and corporate greed

While earthquakes and tsunamis are natural disasters, the decision to spend billions of dollars on wars of conquest while ignoring simple measures that can save human lives is not.

At least 55,000 people were killed by the tsunamis that devastated coastlines from Indonesia to Somalia. Almost a third of the dead are children.  Thousands are still missing and millions are homeless in 11 countries. Hundreds of thousands have lost everything, and millions face a bleak future because of polluted drinking water, a lack of sanitation, and no health services, according to UN undersecretary Jan Egeland, who is in charge of emergency relief coordination.

Egeland said, “We cannot fathom the cost for these poor societies and the nameless fishermen and fishing villages and so on that have just been wiped out. Hundreds of thousands of livelihoods have gone.”

No money for early warning system

Much of this death and destruction could have been prevented with a simple and inexpensive system of buoys. Officials in Thailand and Indonesia have said that an immediate public warning could have saved lives, but that they could not know of the danger because there is no international system in place to track tsunamis in the Indian Ocean.

Such a system is not difficult or expensive to install. In fact, the detector buoys that monitor tsunamis have been available for decades and the U.S. has had a monitoring system in place [in the Pacific] for more than half a century. More than 50 seismometers are scattered across the Northwest[ern United States] to detect and measure earthquakes that might spawn tsunamis. In the middle of the Pacific are six buoys equipped with sensors called “tsunameters” that measure small changes in water pressure and are programmed to automatically alert the country’s two tsunami-warning centers in Hawaii and Alaska.

Dr. Eddie Bernard, director of the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, says just a few buoys could do the job. Scientists wanted to place two more tsunami meters in the Indian Ocean, including one near Indonesia, but the plan had not been funded, said Bernard. The tsunameters each cost only $250,000.

A mere half million dollars could have provided an early warning system that could have saved thousands of lives. This should be compared to the $1,500,000,000 the U.S. spends every day to fund the Pentagon war machine. This means that for what the U.S. is spending for less than one second of bombing and destruction it could construct a system that could have prevented thousands of needless deaths. Lack of funding for an inexpensive, low-tech early warning system is simply criminal negligence.

Indian Minister of State for Science and Technology Kapil Sibal said, “If the country had such an alert system in place, we could have warned the coastal areas of the imminent danger and avoided the loss of life.” But there is no room in the Bush budget for such life-saving measures; the U.S. government’s priorities are corporate profit and endless war.

At a meeting of the UN Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission in June, experts concluded that the “Indian Ocean has a significant threat from both local and distant tsunamis” and should have a warning network. But no action was agreed upon. Geologist Brian Atwater of the U.S. Geological Survey said, “Sumatra has an ample history of great earthquakes, which makes the lack of a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean all the more tragic. Everyone knew Sumatra was a loaded gun.”

U.S. government failed to warn region

Although the local governments had no real warning, the U.S. government did, and it failed to pass along the information. Within minutes of the massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Indonesia, U.S. scientists working with National Oceanic and

Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suspected that a deadly wave was spreading through the Indian Ocean.

They did not call anyone in the governments in the area. Jeff LaDouce, an official in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that they e-mailed Indonesian officials, but said that he wasn’t aware what happened after they sent the e-mails.

In this day of instant communications, controlled in a large part by the U.S., it is possible to communicate within minutes to every part of the globe. It is beyond belief that the officials at NOAA could not find any method to directly and immediately contact civilian authorities in the area. Their decision not to do so may have cost thousands of lives.

Even a few minutes warning would have given the inhabitants a chance to seek higher ground. The NOAA had several hours’ notice before the first waves hit shore [in manu areas]. Tim Walsh, geologic-hazards program manager for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, said, “Fifty feet of elevation would be enough to escape the worst of the waves. In most places, 25 feet would be sufficient. If you go uphill or inland, the effect of the tsunami will be diminished.” But the inhabitants of the area weren't given the warning—as a result, television and radio alerts were not issued in Thailand until nearly an hour after the waves had hit and thousands were already dead. 

 The failure to make any real effort to warn the people of the region, knowing that tens of thousands of lives were at stake, is part of a pattern of imperial contempt and racism that has become the cornerstone of U.S. policies worldwide.

The NOAA immediately warned the U.S. Naval Station [in the Indian Ocean] at Diego Garcia, which suffered very little damage from the tsunami. It is telling that the NOAA was able to get the warning to the U.S. Navy base in the area, but wouldn’t pick up the phone and call the civil authorities in the region to warn them. They made sure that a U.S. military base was notified and did almost nothing to issue a warning to the civilian inhabitants who were in the direct path of the wave—a warning that might have saved thousands of lives.

This is criminal negligence.

Disease may kill tens of thousands more

The 55,000 [or more] deaths directly resulting from the tsunami are just the beginning of the tragedy. Disease could claim as many victims as have been killed in the weekend’s earthquake-sparked tsunami, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Medical experts warn that malaria, cholera, and dengue fever are expected to pose serious health threats to survivors in the area, where waves spoiled drinking-water supplies, polluted streets and homes with raw sewage, swept away medical clinics, ruined food stocks, and left acres of stagnant ponds where malaria-carrying mosquitoes can breed.

“The biggest threat to survivors is from the spread of infection through contamination of drinking water and putrefying bodies left by the receding waters,” said Jamie McGoldrick, a senior UN health official.

“Within a few days, we fear, there are going to be outbreaks of disease,” Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said. “Cholera is going to be a problem. This is going to be the most important thing in a few days.”

The response of the U.S. government to this emergency is to offer a paltry $15 million “aid package.” To put this in perspective, this is one-tenth of one percent of what Washington has spent thus far on the war against the people of Iraq.

Money for human needs, not for war

The U.S. and British governments owe billions of dollars in reparations to the countries of this region and to all other formerly colonized countries. The poverty and lack of infrastructure that contribute to and exacerbate the scope of this disaster are the direct result of colonial rule and neo-colonial policies. Although economic and political policies cannot control the weather, they can determine how a nation is impacted by natural disasters.

We must hold the U.S. government accountable for its role in tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of deaths. We must demand that it stop spending $1.5 billion each day for war and occupation and instead provide health care for the victims of this tragedy, build an early warning system, and rebuild the homes and infrastructure destroyed by the tsunami.