Asian Tsunami: Redefining Disaster

-- Satya Sagar


n 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.
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 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.
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 most 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. 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.
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.