A Natural and Unnatural Disaster
Published on Tuesday, December 28, 2004 by The Progressive
A Natural and Unnatural Disaster

by Matthew Rothschild

The monster earthquake and giant tsunamis in Southern and Southeast Asia have taken an incredible toll: at least 40,000 people have perished so far, according to CNN, and thousands more may eventually be added to that ghoulish tally.

This was a sadistic act of mother nature, and it slayed rich and poor alike.

But it was not quite an equal opportunity killer.

It’s likely that the vast majority of the dead were poor people, those who make their subsistence living as small fishermen, those who live in ramshackle huts on or near the beaches, those who service the tourist industry for a paltry wage.

And while such a brutal force of nature would have exacted a terrible price in any event, the magnitude was compounded by man-made factors.

The first was a lack of a functioning early-warning emergency system. The United States set one up for countries on the Pacific more than five decades ago, but none was in operation for the countries bordering the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.

The second factor is not technological at all, but economic and political: and that is, mass poverty.

Half the world’s working population makes $2 a day or less.

Those who live in coastal areas cannot afford the high rent of the high ground. They live where they can, often in the path of the next hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami. And they are not hooked up to TVs or cell phones that could privately have warned them, had there been such warnings.

Ten years ago, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development issued a report on disaster mitigation. “Principally as a result of their poverty,” it noted, “developing countries are especially vulnerable to natural hazards. Hazard events which would cause limited damage and few casualties in a rich country often cause extensive damage and substantial loss of life in a developing country context.”

One indication of a civilized world is the ability if not to tame nature at least to get out of its way.

But poverty, an unnatural disaster, accompanied this natural one, and the combination was enormously lethal.

© 2004 The Progressive