Making natural disasters bigger killers
Yet another tsunami has hit Indonesia, perhaps the country most vulnerable to a dangerous mix of natural disasters. Saturday’s tsunami was caused by the eruption of a volcano between Java and Sumatra, two of the archipelago's main islands. This was the second tsunami to hit Indonesia in three months, after an earthquake triggered a tsunami that left over 2,000 persons dead.
After the tsunami of 2004 that left nearly 300,000 persons dead in 13 Asian countries, Indonesia and other nations are better equipped to tackle natural disasters. They not only create dedicated task forces to handle the catastrophes, but they also use equipment, such as tsunami and earthquake warning systems, in order to be able to warn the populations vulnerable to these disasters.
However, both the September and Saturday’s tsunamis exposed the weaknesses and limitations of these systems. Last week’s tsunami was caused by a volcano and hence behaved differently from the one caused by an earthquake which causes the sea to first recede from the coast and then come crashing back as a giant wave. Saturday’s tsunami was due to landslides and large amounts of lava being dumped by the volcano into the sea, leading to the creation of waves. The tsunami alert systems failed to detect this phenomenon and hence caught the victims by surprise, as evident from a viral video that shows members of an Indonesian rock band being swept away by a giant wave that hit the stage during the concert.
This illustrates the limitation of the current tsunami warning systems in place; scientists will sooner or later be able to create an alert for volcano-induced tsunamis as well but the deaths of over 2,000 persons in September points to a bigger problem — the lack of preparedness and the sheer rapidity and scale of the disasters that frequently strike our planet.
The first problem is that most often the areas struck by disasters are remote and have poor links to the outside world, thus making access very challenging in times of disaster. This is compounded by the massive damage caused to the infrastructure by the disaster which further delays the movement of men and material to the affected zones. This was evident again on Saturday when the heavy rescue equipment could not reach the site for a long while due to extensively damaged roads. One solution could be to decentralize the location of rescue teams and equip them with at least some equipment that can commence rescue operations while other assistance arrives.
It is the moral obligation of rich countries to step up and fund urgently needed initiatives to save thousands of lives each year.
Ranvir S. Nayar
Though human actions do not trigger natural disasters like earthquakes and volcanoes, the negative impact of our behavior such as industrialization, rapid urbanization, pollution and climate change all add up in the event of a catastrophe to make the situation far worse. Take pollution and climate change, both of which are mainly caused by industrialization and urbanization.
Pollution of the seas has led to severe erosion in the coastal areas as well as the destruction of many natural barriers — such as mangroves as well as coral reefs — that act as important retardants in case of tsunamis and flooding. These not only absorb the roughest of the shocks, reducing significantly the impact that gets through them to coastal areas, but they also can give crucial minutes or hours needed to escape to higher ground or take other safety measures in case of a tsunami. Of course, it does not help that sea levels have been rising due to climate change which in turn makes tsunamis that much more deadly. Away from the coast, soil erosion and deforestation similarly increase the deadliness of a flood and often in addition cause landslides.
Most of the communities in areas most vulnerable to these disasters are among the poorest parts of the population, irrespective of the country. They barely manage to eke out a living even in the best of situations, and natural disasters make it harder for them to survive and recover.
Unfortunately, the global leadership has abandoned this population. It was evident from the failure of the Cop24 Summit at Katowice, Poland, earlier this month. The leaders failed to reach a binding commitment to create a global fund for the vulnerable countries to take actions to mitigate the impact of natural disasters caused by, or reinforced by, climate change. As an overwhelming proportion of countries vulnerable to the effects of climate change are extremely poor and lack both the money and physical resources to equip themselves, it is the moral obligation of rich countries to step up and fund these urgently needed initiatives to save thousands of lives each year.
• Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of the Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India that includes publishing, communication and consultation services.