Articulo The Economist. www.economist.com. 01/01/05
A whole region struggles to recover from the aftermath of the biggest earthquake seen for 40 years
The sequence with which the news unfolded followed the global economic order. First, early on December 26th, through the miracle of mobile telephony, came the horror stories of western tourists spending their Christmas breaks by the sea in places like Sri Lanka and Thailand, on opposite sides of the Bay of Bengal. Their beach-side haunts had been deluged by huge tidal waves. From then on, the known scale of the disaster has kept rising remorselessly. The victims—many tens of thousands dead, hundreds of thousands displaced, millions coping with loss—were, as usual, mostly the poor, vulnerable and remote. Entire villages of uncounted, nameless fishing people were swallowed by the sea that sustained them.
The region had been shaken by the biggest earthquake the world had seen since 1964, registering a magnitude of 9.0. Its epicentre was under the sea, off the northern tip of the Indonesian archipelago. Besides devastating parts of Indonesian Sumatra, the quake set off sea surges that reached as far as the coast of Africa, where dozens of Somali fishermen perished, 6,500km (4,000 miles) from the epicentre. The tsunami wreaked havoc around the Bay of Bengal, from India, Sri Lanka and the 1,190 low-lying islands that make up the Maldives in the west, to Thailand and Malaysia in the east.
How many died may never be known. As The Economist went to press, the figure was passing 60,000 and seemed set, inevitably, to rise. In Thailand, officials said that bodies would continue to be washed up for months. Tens of thousands died in Sumatra alone. It took days even to reach some of the worst affected areas, in the province of Aceh. Perhaps as many were killed in Sri Lanka and southern India. In the Andaman and Nicobar islands, an Indian archipelago some 1,200km from the mainland, which suffered a series of aftershocks in the days following the big quake, at least 3,000 died, thousands were missing and an anthropological as well as a human disaster was feared: the utter extinction of a number of unique small tribes. Most of the islands had no high ground to which inhabitants might have escaped the wave, and were several sailing days from help.
The death toll, appalling though it is, is unlikely to break records. Bangladesh lost 500,000 in the 1970 cyclone; perhaps an even higher number were killed by the earthquake in Tangshan, in China, in 1976. But Alan Bradbury, of the Red Cross in Delhi, called this tsunami one of the worst natural disasters ever—not just because of the terrible toll in human death, but also because of its unprecedented geographical scope and the number of people affected. The United Nations gave warning that it would need the biggest-ever international relief effort.
Across the region, hospitals and mortuaries overflowed. In southern India, the authorities resorted to mass burials as well as cremations. Both the World Health Organisation and the United Nations gave warning that as many could die from disease—malaria and dengue fever, as well as typhoid and cholera—as from the tsunami itself. Clean water, uncontaminated by sewage, was the first essential. But survivors also lacked fuel, food, medicines and, often, even shelter and cooking pots.
Almost at once, finger-pointing started. It took between 90 and 150 minutes after the quake for the tsunami to reach the coastlines where it did most damage. Why was there no warning? India, for example, is not part of a 26-country warning system that uses seismic sensors and tidal gauges attached to buoys in the ocean. Its members are mostly countries in and around the Pacific, where tsunamis are much more common.
Arun Bapat, an Indian seismologist, nonetheless cites examples of four previous tsunamis that have reached India. And he argues that, even without the warning system, there should have been time enough to alert people of the looming peril by television and loudspeaker. Similar questions were asked in Thailand, which is part of the warning system—though its west coast, where this disaster struck, is not covered. Some scientists argued that the effect of the tsunami was exacerbated by the widespread cutting down of coastal mangrove swamps—in both Thailand and India, for example.
Some of the Indian criticism seems unfair. The tsunami was freakish. A report produced in 2004 by the United Nations Development Programme, which pioneered a “disaster-risk index”, noted that some countries, such as Papua New Guinea, were poorly represented in the model because they are “affected by hazards that are not of global significance”, such as tsunamis and landslides. Just after this quake, monitors at the Geophysics and Meteorology Agency in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, said they had no information about even the possibility of a tsunami.
Assessing the damage
The cost of relief and rehabilitation will run into billions of dollars. Sri Lanka was quick to declare a national emergency and appeal for international help. Thailand's prime minister has estimated the damage at $510m, or 0.36% of his country's GDP in 2003. Thai Airways has been badly hit, with cancelled or postponed bookings already totalling nearly $7m.
Insurers, at least, will be relieved that most of those whose livelihoods have been destroyed were not covered. Some hoteliers will make claims, as will families of western tourists who were covered by life insurance. Their bill, however, is likely to be far lower than the one that followed the hurricanes in Florida and its neighbouring states earlier in 2004.
One of the few insurers to make an early estimate is Munich Re, the world's largest reinsurer. It expects to pay out less than €100m ($140m). Hannover Re, the world's fifth-largest reinsurer, predicts its total claims in a range of €10m-20m before tax. Considering the size of these companies, the damage is limited. Still, the markets have reacted with pessimism; 2004 has been a heavy year for payouts for natural disasters.
The regional economic impact may be contained. In many countries, the disaster is, obviously, a huge blow to important tourist industries, which have had to cope with years of setbacks: the two-decade long civil war between Tamil “Tigers” and the government of Sri Lanka; the choking smog known as the “haze” that engulfed much of South-East Asia in 1997 and 1998; the terrorist bombing of tourists in Bali in 2002; the SARS outbreak in 2003.
Sri Lanka, where a nearly three-year ceasefire in the civil war has helped the industry recover, will be badly hit, as will the beach resorts of Thailand, According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, an industry body, tourism in Thailand generates 12% of GDP and 9% of employment. But with the exception of the Maldives, which is tiny, no affected country wholly depends on tourism. And although millions of livelihoods have been destroyed, analysts do not expect the disaster to make much of a dent in the region's overall growth prospects.
Living by the ocean
That, however, is little consolation to the poor people affected. The tsunami battered some well-established tourist destinations where the travel business has brought a degree of prosperity, such as Phuket in Thailand, other parts of the Thai west coast, Malaysia and, an ocean away, southern Sri Lanka and the Maldives. (In Khao Lak, in Thailand, which was full of tourists from northern Europe, a provincial official complained that the local coffins were too small for the bloated bodies of the foreigners.) But thousands of miles in between have seen little development at all. In the southern Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, in the Nicobars and in the Tiger-controlled north of Sri Lanka, the sea's victims were subsistence farmers and fishing people eking out a precarious living in, or at the edge of, a fickle ocean.
Rebuilding their lives is the challenge facing the relief effort. It will be a logistical nightmare, since in many places, such as Sri Lanka, much of the infrastructure needed to reach the stricken villages has itself been destroyed. Estimates of casualties there shot up on December 28th when the wreck of a train was discovered, engulfed by the sea with hundreds of passengers on board.
In Sri Lanka and elsewhere, hundreds of thousands are displaced. Some may drift into towns or be left for months in temporary camps. But most will have no choice but to return to the debris of their homes, the wreckage of their fishing boats and their fields drenched with salt water, and start their lives again. Many will do so with a sense of insecurity. In Nagapattinam district in Tamil Nadu, where at least 3,500 people died, scenes of mass panic greeted rumours that there had been warning of renewed surges. In fact, says Mr Bapat, there is little chance of another dangerous tsunami, since no aftershock to the first quake would have the strength to generate one.
Crumbs of comfort
Amid the wreckage, some sought glimmers of light. The tsunami, it was argued, offered some political hope of reconciliation between hostile communities: Muslims and Buddhists in southern Thailand, Acehnese and the Jakarta government, Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. Both in Aceh, where the Indonesian government has been waging a vicious anti-secessionist war for 28 years, and in Sri Lanka, it was argued that the warring sides might find common cause in disaster relief. Both the Indonesian armed forces and the Free Aceh Movement have called ceasefires. But it is unclear how long the truce may last, or what access international relief agencies will be given to the area where conflict rages.
Similarly, in Sri Lanka, some of the most severe damage was done in areas controlled by the Tamil Tigers. In theory, co-operation with the government in administering disaster relief might help build confidence and strengthen the shaky ceasefire. In practice, such co-operation is likely to prove impossible, leaving Tamils in Tiger areas—like disaffected Acehnese—feeling even more disregarded by the central government.
As the grim statistics of the disaster grew grimmer with each passing day, any optimism grew harder to sustain. But there was one small exception. In parts of India, people trooped to temples to make offerings to appease the angry sea-goddess. In the short term, at least, her fury seems to have eased.
Tsunami warnings: Run like the wind
How to avoid dying in a tsunami
One pertinent question in the wake of the earthquake near Aceh and the tsunami it generated is how much notice of an approaching wave can be given to vulnerable people without the risk of crying “wolf” too often. Earthquakes themselves are unpredictable, and likely to remain so. But detecting them when they happen is a routine technology. That was not the problem in this case, which was observed by monitoring stations all over the world. Unfortunately for the forecasters, although any powerful submarine earthquake brings the risk of a dangerous tsunami, not all such earthquakes actually result in a big wave, and false alarms cost money and breed cynicism.
On top of that, most “tsunamigenic” earthquakes, which are caused when the processes of plate tectonics force heavy, oceanic crustal rock below lighter, continental rock to create a deep trench at the bottom of the sea, occur in the Pacific, which is almost surrounded by such trenches. In the Indian Ocean, deep trenches are confined to the southern coast of Indonesia, and tsunamis are rare. Since most of the countries affected by this tsunami are poor, or middle-income at best, and monitoring costs money, this might suggest that a fatalistic approach to the question is reasonable. But American and Japanese experience suggests that effective monitoring need not be that expensive.
These two countries have networks of seabed pressure-detectors that can monitor tsunamis and indicate whether and where evacuation is necessary—data they share with their Pacific neighbours. A system of seven detectors, run from Hawaii, cost about $18m to develop, and the experience gained doing so means a similar system might now be had for as little as $2m. So, to the sound of stable doors being bolted firmly shut, politicians in South-East Asia and Australia are proposing one for the Indian Ocean.
Detecting tsunamis directly, rather than relying on earthquake monitors, is important for another reason, too. Not all tsunamis are caused by earthquakes. Some of the worst, such as a 15-metre-high monster that killed more than 2,000 people in New Guinea in 1998, are the result of submarine landslides (though these can themselves be triggered by earthquakes, as was the case in New Guinea). Indeed, a few years ago it was suggested that a landslide in an unstable part of La Palma, one of the Canary Islands, might cause a tsunami that would devastate the east coast of America.
Even if you have an effective detection system, though, it is useless if you cannot evacuate a threatened area. Here, speed is of the essence. Computer modelling can help show which areas are likely to be safest, but common sense is often the best guide—run like the wind, away from the sea. Evacuation warnings, too, should be easy to give as long as people are awake. Radios are ubiquitous, even in most poor places. It is just a matter of having systems in place to tell the radio stations to tell people to run. The problem was that no one did.