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Warnings

The New York Times editorial page waxes existential:

It's instinctive in humans to search for the meaning of an event like this, once shock and grief have begun to subside. And there will be plenty of meanings to find in the ways that humans reacted as this disaster struck and in its aftermath as the relief effort begins. But except for our obligations to help the victims in any way we can, the underlying story of this tragedy is the overpowering, amoral mechanics of the earth's surface, the movement of plates that grind and shift and slide against each other with profound indifference to anything but the pressures that drive them. Whenever those forces punctuate human history, they do so tragically. They demonstrate, geologically speaking, how ephemeral our presence is.
I sort of agree. There's no "larger meaning" here. At the same time, it's worth learning some policy lessons. Like everyone else, I've been learning to day that many, many lives could have been saved if some sort of technologically feasible warning system had been built. Tsunamis move fast, as far as these things go, but not so fast that many people could have gotten out of the way had they been warned. More broadly, disaster relief isn't one of my areas of speciality (as readers have no doubt noticed) but thinking about this brings some thoughts to mind. It seems to me that catastrophic natural disasters actually occur rather more frequently than it instinctively seems. Before this tsunami was the huge earthquake in Iran, and I recall that just a few months ago many poorer Carribbean countries were devastated by hurricanes, etc.

Each time something like that happens, there's always this rather heartening response where people -- and governments -- from all over the world pitch in a bit to try and help the victims. But it always seems very ad hoc. People scramble around to see which charities are active in the relevant area, and potential aiding governments don't quite know what resources they have at their disposal, etc., etc. In light of the fact that there evidently is a widespread and pretty deep commitment to global disaster relief, this makes me wonder if there isn't a politically feasible opportunity to make all this work better by establishing a reasonably well-funded and well-resourced permanent international agency to step in and do this work rather than having everyone scramble around ad hoc after something happens. This -- unlike some other stuff people would like to see it do -- seems like the kind of task that the UN is pretty well-suited to do, since various governments have a pretty good record of cooperating with each other on these kinds of issues so you wouldn't see the usual paralysis. Obviously, the UN already has a substantial aid component, but unless I'm mistaken there's isn't the sort of body I have in mind -- a kind of global FEMA ("GEMA," I suppose you would call it).

UPDATE: I see my roommate Kriston Capps has put up some similar thoughts from his late-December base of operations in Texas. He also raises the point that in light of the Greek-Turkish earthquake-related reconciliation, this might help resolve the outstanding conflicts in Sri Lanka and Indonesia's Aceh province. A word of caution would be that pre-earthquake Greek and Turkish elites were already pretty clearly interested in ratcheting-down tensions, but felt themselves to be somewhat trapped by history and circumstance. The disaster was a good motivator for people to do things they were already inclined to do and provided opportunities to do so without loss of face. I'm not really current on the status of either the Sri Lanka or the Aceh conflicts, but the situations may be different in relevant ways.

December 27, 2004 | Permalink

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» Griefbusters from Saheli*: Musings and Observations
As Matthew Yglesias and Kriston Capps groused early in the Tsuani blog cycle, it's really amazing how unprepared we are as a world for disasters when we know that, regardless of the specifics, they are going to happen. [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 2, 2005 11:46:17 PM

» We Need a Lot More Than Just a Warning System from LITHOGLYPHIC
This tsunami that just occurred in the Indian Ocean is stunning in its magnitude. With a death toll over 20,000 50,000 100,000 150,000 and around five million displaced, the spread and severity are incredible. However, I think what gets people... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 5, 2005 9:49:36 PM

» We Need a Lot More Than Just a Warning System from LITHOGLYPHIC
Having studied natural disaster policy for the past semester, I see a different tragedy in all this: We are always going to have disasters of this scale. The recurrence interval on massive tsunamis in the Indian Ocean is pretty long, so it doesn't ma... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 5, 2005 9:56:27 PM

» We Need a Lot More Than Just a Warning System from LITHOGLYPHIC
Having studied natural disaster policy for the past semester, I see a different tragedy in all this: We are always going to have disasters of this scale. The recurrence interval on massive tsunamis in the Indian Ocean is pretty long, so it doesn't ma... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 5, 2005 10:27:21 PM

Comments

Little could have been done to prevent the thousands of deaths caused by the earthquake in Bam last year at this time. However, most of the deaths from the tsunami created by the latest quake were preventable.

Charles McCreery, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) center in Honolulu was quoted saying this in the SMH:

"It took an hour and a half for the wave to get from the earthquake to Sri Lanka and an hour for it to get ... to the west coast of Thailand and Malaysia. You can walk inland for 15 minutes to get to a safe area. We tried to do what we could. We don't have contacts in our address book for anybody in that part of the world."

To me, that's a negligently deficient address book.

Posted by: DavidK | Dec 27, 2004 10:35:05 AM

Tsunamis move fast, as far as these things go, but not so fast that many people could have gotten out of the way had they been warned.

I do not mean to insult, but that's the typical simplistic American way of looking at these sorts of events.

The reality is that infrastucture (technology, oganizations, communications) to relay such information efficiently simply does not exist. Many of the affected people live in a different world, one which is not connected to the information sources that you or I use daily and think nothing of it.

Posted by: Willem | Dec 27, 2004 11:02:03 AM

I don't know about coastal Somalia, but the necessary technical and communications infrastructure *certainly* exist in Thailand, India, and much of Sri Lanka.

Posted by: DavidK | Dec 27, 2004 11:18:25 AM

While basically I agree. There is one larger meaning. Beachfront property is way over- rated and over priced.

Posted by: Jake | Dec 27, 2004 11:20:56 AM

Each time something like that happens, there's always this rather heartening response where people -- and governments -- from all over the world pitch in a bit to try and help the victims. But it always seems very ad hoc

The problem with setting up a funded international agency is that then the governments would have to ACTUALLY provide money, instead of just promising to and then not.

As the Guardian notes:

An even more urgent challenge to the nations offering aid yesterday, is whether they will honour their pledges. People in Bam ruefully complained yesterday that while $1bn of aid was promised in the wake of their quake last year that killed 30,000 people, only $17m was ultimately paid over.

Posted by: Richard Bellamy | Dec 27, 2004 11:23:48 AM

I don't know about coastal Somalia, but the necessary technical and communications infrastructure *certainly* exist in Thailand

I am not so sure about that. I think you are over estimating their resources. The key is that information not disseminated at the local level is useless. For this to work, you would need to reach vast numbers of people where they are at that moment, all within an hour. This is a huge task and cannot be done on the fly as was required here. To do that will require some planning... (and money, you know)

Posted by: Willem | Dec 27, 2004 11:27:40 AM

How could you not learn a lesson from this? A predicted consequence of global warming is increased earthquakes as the weight of the glaciers is melted off the earth. Another predicted consequence is more frequent inundation of low-lying coastal areas. Do we need a flaming billboard in the sky to see that global warming, in part, will look exactly like this?

Posted by: serial catowner | Dec 27, 2004 11:37:02 AM

I am not so sure about that. I think you are over estimating their resources. The key is that information not disseminated at the local level is useless. For this to work, you would need to reach vast numbers of people where they are at that moment, all within an hour. This is a huge task and cannot be done on the fly as was required here. To do that will require some planning... (and money, you know)

If Paul Revere could pull it off, it seems like it should be doable. Put an Iridium phone plus a few motorscooters with flashing lights and bullhorns in every largeish town. This isn't rocket science. You won't get the word out to everybody, but it would take a pretty small investment to warn a lot of people. I agree that any solution will require some planning, but it seems pretty feasible to me.

Posted by: tom | Dec 27, 2004 11:41:16 AM

Sorry, first graf of my previous comment are quoting Willem and should be in italics. Stupid typepad.

Posted by: tom | Dec 27, 2004 11:43:33 AM

I am not so sure about that. I think you are over estimating their resources. The key is that information not disseminated at the local level is useless. For this to work, you would need to reach vast numbers of people where they are at that moment, all within an hour. This is a huge task and cannot be done on the fly as was required here. To do that will require some planning... (and money, you know)


To flesh that out a bit: to do that, you need a widespread recognizable signal and you need to educate people to know what the signal means and how to react, and you need a rapid decision structure to evaluate events and activate the signal. Each of these three elements requires substantial investment. And, really, its an investment that can be hard to justify for a threat that might be realized once in several centuries, particularly in the developing world, in which there are overwhelming and far more imminent threats.

OTOH, if the rich donor countries that end up providing most of the aid in the event of disasters like this were to get together, they could probably fund global warning systems for tsunamis and other pro-active disaster prevention systems in a way that would produce a net savings in the long term; if there is a global interest in responding to such disasters (which I agree there is), there is an equally strong global interest in preventing them in the first place.

Posted by: cmdicely | Dec 27, 2004 11:47:40 AM

How could you not learn a lesson from this? A predicted consequence of global warming is increased earthquakes as the weight of the glaciers is melted off the earth.

That's a very odd prediction; glaciers shouldn't effect the total energy released in earthquakes, and if they melt, they don't end up somewhere other than earth (even in the ocean, they are still adding weight to the various plates); it might reduce the weight on certain plates, and increase it on others.

Still not sure why that would affect earthquakes; about the only sensible relationship that seems intuitive is that it less weight on a plate might increase the frequency and decrease the magnitude of the earthquakes that plate is involved in; that probably decreases the risk of major disasters.

Posted by: cmdicely | Dec 27, 2004 11:53:22 AM

The 9-11 acts of terrorism prompted Bush to begin the War on Terror. Will this act of God cause Bush to declare a War on God?

Posted by: wunderdog | Dec 27, 2004 12:05:17 PM

The projection is that global warming will increase the frequency of earthquakes. Naturally, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose when you have an earthquake.

So much discussion above about warning systems- the Japanese and the Chileans already have systems. The Japanese have gone to a lot of work to protect against or minimize the effects of tsunami. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

Posted by: serial catowner | Dec 27, 2004 1:13:38 PM

So much discussion above about warning systems- the Japanese and the Chileans already have systems.

As well as the US and others (all, IIRC, in the Pacific). Yes, comparatively wealthy countries in the Pacific (where tsunamis are more common) tend to have warning systems, whereas poorer countries along, for instance, the Indian Ocean (where tsunamis are less common) tend not to.

This is, ultimately, fairly rational behavior on the part of the governments involved. Magnitude 9.0 earthquakes in the Indian Ocean basin are, while terrible, not particularly the most imminent threat facing governments like Thailand or India.

Posted by: cmdicely | Dec 27, 2004 1:30:03 PM

Tsunamis move fast, as far as these things go, but not so fast that many people could have gotten out of the way had they been warned.

Poorer countries have to choose to allocate their resources toward more common disasters. The tsunami is spectacular but not a yearly problem like flooding or drought.

Hey Matt, there's an interesting analogy here to how we're spending so many resources on the so-called War on Terror, when in fact terrorism is a relatively rare event from the statistical standpoint of "Will I die at the hands of terrorists"...

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Dec 27, 2004 1:58:30 PM

I suspect part of the reason that governments haven't created such an organization is the loss of credit that the system would encourage. [Hmm, awkward phrasing.]

What I'm saying is that no one is very impressed by "we donate 0.01% of our GDP to the UN's disaster response program", but people do respond well to "We [specific nation] are donating $4 million in response to X". There's something direct you can point to- a big number and a specific event. People don't get as excited by broad cases and institutions.

Posted by: ScottM | Dec 27, 2004 2:12:26 PM

I say that poverty killed 22,000 people.

There was no Indian Ocean tsunami warning system, because the event was so rare that none of the governments in the region could really afford to build one. Even if they could afford the warning system, telecommunications are so primative in many of the areas that people would not have been warned anyway. Finally, local governments are too poor to effectively mandate safe surfside building practices, or even to effectively help their communities to deal with the tragedy.

While this tsunami was particularly noticed by the planet, we tend not to notice the 1 million people killed by poverty (malaria), not to mention AIDS (killing about another million, mostly in impoverished countries), and other natural disasters (flooding, typhoons, etc.) which kill far fewer people in rich countries, because rich people and rich countries have the infrastructure to survive such events.

Global economic growth is the answer to saving lives.

Posted by: econotarian | Dec 27, 2004 2:35:28 PM

Global economic growth is the answer to saving lives.

Only if by "global" you mean "growth for every part of the globe" rather than "for the whole world, in aggregate".

Posted by: cmdicely | Dec 27, 2004 3:00:18 PM

Scott M.: Your point regarding the ability to take credit is, unfortunately, quite right; preventing disasters does a lot less to make a developed government look good then helping in the response after thousands are killed.

Posted by: cmdicely | Dec 27, 2004 3:01:29 PM

Rush Limbaugh's substitute today says the NYTimes editorial shows why we shouldn't worry about global warming. Implacability of nature, and all that.

And then a genius caller took issue with the Times' use of "amoral" to describe the earthquake. Nature isn't amoral, he insisted, because only human beings can have morality!

Posted by: Grumpy | Dec 27, 2004 3:01:52 PM

As I've blogged, we ought to consider supporting, new-tech ways of dealing with this situation. And it doesn't just have to be for Tsunami's. Matt's exactly right: an integrated global preparation/warning/response system that's NOT ad hoc would consistently save lives over and over again. It wouldn't solve all problems equally, but it would definitely help.

If Paul Revere could pull it off, it seems like it should be doable. Yes, exactly.

Posted by: Saheli | Dec 27, 2004 3:42:48 PM

While this diaster is not climate change related, scientists do predict more large scale disasters . Bush's obsession with tax cuts has caused the recent cuts in global food aid programs and other similar programs, which will diminish the number of survivors in future events .

Posted by: moondog | Dec 27, 2004 9:15:18 PM

Creation of a "GEMA" is fraught with potential troubles. As it is now, the Red Cross/Red Crescent is probably the single biggest global disaster relief organization. Their funding is voluntary, so they are not beholden to any nation. While their relief efforts are somewhat affected by the popularity of any cause, they do ameliorate those inequities somewhat, but it is not an ideal situation.

Put the UN in charge, and relief efforts will be manipulated by geopolitical concerns rather than by popularity. There will also be little the organization will do to ameliorate these inequities. Political maneuvering will slow down relief efforts. If an organization is empowered to act without political deliberation, such empowerment will lead to corruption.

Such a thing as "GEMA" will be good when there is enough common sentiment among the people of the world. There isn't yet.

Posted by: Njorl | Dec 28, 2004 10:26:37 AM

Even having read what's already been written, I can't stop thinking that it would not have needed a sophisticated warning system to save thousands of lives, at least in the countries far from the epicentre which the tsunami didn't reach for 4 hours. Why did nothing happen? Of course it would have been possible to reach many of the affected people, but something could be done - but even to save a thousand lives would be something.

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