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Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 3 January 2005


Tragic tales and urgent tasks from the Tsunami disaster

What a tragic way to start a new year.  The tsunami that swept Asian countries has left behind devastation of villages and cities, millions of stories of tragic loss and heroic actions, urgent tasks of relief and reconstruction, and lessons for the future.


It must be the worst way for an old year to pass away, and a new year to come onto the world.

The tsunamis that hit Asia and even a few countries in Africa on 26 December were so unexpected and so shocking in its devastating impact.

In these days of satellite television and instant news reports, many of us could witness the tragedy as it unfolded and as estimates of the death toll climbed from 20,000 to 150,000 and approached 200,000.

The macro and micro dimensions of the horror are still sinking in.   The TV images of devastated communities and satellite pictures of whole cities before and after the high waves struck show us the huge dimensions of the destruction.

But even more heart rending are the personal stories of the tragedy.  Etched in the collective memory of Malaysians will be the pain and suffering of people like Zulkifli Mohd Nor, who was shown sobbing on TV news after he lost five of his young children as they were swept away at Penang’s Pasir Panjang beach.

His family, like any other Malaysian family could have done on that sunny day, had decided to go to the beach so the children could take another swim before the school holidays ended.  Zulkifli managed to save his wife and their year-old daughter but lost the other five.

Who could not have been affected by the story and photograph of the weeping seven year old Jessica Lim in last Friday’s Star.    She called out “Mama” repeatedly as the coffins of her mother Sue Siew Keong and her husband Lim Woo-Jeong were placed at a cremation chamber in Kuala Lumpur.

Jessica, her sister and their parents were at Emerald Cave near Phuket when the tsunami struck.  Sue sacrificed her life to save her two daughters.  As Lim was swept away, she  held on to the two girls and then released them to another son who was standing on higher ground.  In doing so, Sue herself was taken away by the raging waters.

A heart-warming story that any parent can relate to, of the natural instinct to save the children, even at the expense of one’s own life.  And an utterly tragic yet inspiring  knowledge that the saved children will always live with, not only that the parents died, but that their mother died so that they the children could live on.

From Sri Lanka comes another tale, that of a young man whose college sweetheart was killed with 800 others when a train was slammed by a 30-foot wall of water.  "Is this the fate that we had planned for?" cried the young man. "My darling, you were the only hope for me."

In India, a woman survived when the waves took her house and ten family members away.   “If it had happened a few moments earlier, I too would have been in the house,” on TV news.  “If only I had also died with everyone else.”

If these were among the saddest stories, perhaps the most terrifying scenes were from the western coastal areas of Sumatra, near the earthquake’s epicenter.  The pictures from the capital, Banda Aceh, were bad enough. 

Even more devastating was the video footage of more remote towns such as Meulaboh (population 40,000) and Lhohga (population 7,000).  It is feared most of the inhabitants may have been died, and almost all the houses and buildings wiped out. 

It took many days before the situation in these coastal towns could be ascertained and even after a week, aid had not reached the survivors there.  It is the desolate silence from these isolated areas that is most frightening.

The lack of information and communication in the affected countries in the hours before and after the tsunami has been highlighted as a major flaw.

This inadequacy was most evident in Indonesia.  In the first day after the tsunami struck, the official estimates for the death toll in Indonesia had been put at only a few thousands. 

Only many days later were the figures adjusted to 80,000.  According to one estimate the Indonesian death toll could eventually be a few hundred thousands.

In Malaysia, news of what had happened in Penang and Kedah was hardly available throughout the day.  Only by the time of the 8.00pm TV news was some information provided, and even then it was scanty.

The lack of warnings of the impending tsunami was explained in Thailand along the lines that tsunamis have rarely happened and the authorities were caught unawares.  This same explanation would apply across the region.

However, The Nation, a Bangkok-based newspaper, cited a more frank explanation by a weather bureau official.    “Since we haven’t had a tsunami for decades, we were reluctant to issue a warning.

“Six years earlier the weather bureau director issued a tsunami warning for Phuket, but one never materialized.  Many people there condemned him for a prediction that they claimed could scare off tourists.  This outcry banned him from visiting Phuket again.  We had this very bad memory in mind when we were considering whether or not to issue a warning.”

The Nation itself commented that “it was out of fear of being subjected to social and political pressure that the government agencies concerned decided to resort to negligence of duty, to expose hundreds of thousands of people to grave danger, in order to protect their own social status.”

Thus, one key lesson from the tsunami disaster is that the political leaders should send clear signals to the government officials that if there is clear danger to the lives, safety and heath of people, that the dangers should be made known, and a warning system be set up and put into effect.

In the past, there had also been the suspicion in some Asian countries that the fear of getting a bad reputation (especially with tourists) could hinder the announcement of outbreaks (and the taking of measures to control) diseases such as SARS and avian flu.

Failure or slowness to act in the hope that tourism will not be affected is counter-productive because the countries concerned will in the end get a bad reputation anyway when the facts are revealed. 

It is better to act fast, for the interests of citizens, and in the process earn a good international image for honesty and effective responses.

The immediate needs in the tsunami-struck countries are clear:  getting food, water, shelter to the victims.  The United Nations and aid agencies are now trying to get their act together, and the funds for aid are rising, though still far from enough.

Debt relief, or at least a moratorium for debt repayment, should be also provided to the affected countries, as has been proposed by some NGOs and even some western governments.

Reconstruction of the affected regions will also be a massive task that should soon get underway.

And, of course, warning systems at regional and national levels, to have countries better prepared for future tsunamis and other natural disasters, are definitely needed.  Tied to these should be emergency systems for evacuation, rescue and relief.

As 2005 dawns upon us, it is difficult to focus on other issues when the aftermath and aftershocks of the 26 December earthquake and tsunami are still so much with us.

Let’s hope that out of this tragic disaster will come a greater sense of our common humanity, better international cooperation among countries and people, and a deeper appreciation of the need to take Nature and the environment into account.

 


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