Preparing for the Next Tsunami
The Asian Wall
By SALIL TRIPATHI
December 30, 2004
It is not easy to make sense, or find a philosophical meaning, in the tens
of thousands of deaths which resulted from the terrible tsunami that struck
countries along the Indian Ocean. As the casualty count mounts to an unfathomable
scale, it's only natural to ask what can possibly be done to help make the
death toll less catastrophic, if or when the next tsunami strikes.
Some steps are mundane. These include providing public education, improving
local communication, enhancing sanitation, and preserving mangroves. Others
will require a degree of political will that is not always evident in many
of the countries affected by this week's tragedy. Granting land and property
rights that empower local communities could indirectly save many lives.
So too would building a closer web of economic relationships between Indian
Most attention so far has instead focused on what superficially looks like
the easy solution, building an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system modeled
on the one that exists in the Pacific. Already the finger pointing and hand
wringing have begun, with suggestions that many lives could have been saved
if only someone from the Pacific system had alerted the right officials
in Indian Ocean countries in time. India has announced it will invest in
a tsunami warning system, and Japan and Australia have promised assistance.
While that is welcome, a warning system is not a silver bullet. When land
is close to the epicenter of the undersea quake, it can prove impossible
to provide sufficient warning -- even the fastest possible system would
have been unable to forecast the path of the tsunami before it slammed into
the coast of Sumatra this time. It takes a few minutes for super-fast computers
to run complex mathematical models and even then, as Hokkaido -- which had
never previously experienced a tsunami -- discovered in 1993, the warning
can come too late.
Moreover, mass evacuation drains resources that poor countries can ill afford.
Especially when the warning is often a false alarm. As The Asian Wall Street
Journal reported yesterday, 15 of the 20 warnings issued in Hawaii which
led to coastal evacuation in the five decades ending in 1996 turned out
to be false alarms. Even if all the systems are in place, there is the question
of moving and mobilizing tens of thousands of people, not only from dense
urban areas like the Indian city of Madras, but also from far-flung Indian
islands like Andaman and Nicobar, or in Aceh in Indonesia and in northeast
Sri Lanka, where rebel movements are fighting government forces.
An oncoming tsunami cannot be rolled back, as King Canute knew only too
well. But states can invest in social infrastructure to manage its after
effects. That means freeing airwaves for radio communication and spending
on primary healthcare and sanitation, to ensure that preventable diseases
like dysentery and diarrhea, and other opportunistic water-borne, bacterial,
or stagnant-water diseases, like malaria, or infectious diseases like cholera
and hepatitis A, do not spread. The supply of clean drinking water is also
important to combat dehydration and heat stroke. Improved public education
-- through radio -- can warn people, many of whom may be illiterate in poorer
countries, of the dangers of being electrocuted from downed power supply
lines, or from exposure to untreated sewage that might spill on the streets.
It's not clear if any breakwater will ever be strong enough to withstand
a powerful tsunami. But practical alternatives are available, such as better
land-use planning, so that new construction is not permitted in high-risk
areas. Research also shows that healthy coral reefs can act as a natural
breakwater to protect the shore against tidal waves. Rows of trees and dense
shrubs along shoreline can break the force of the wind and help hold the
soil. Mangrove forests too provide protection. Swamps and flood plains can
trap flood waters and allow them to drain off more slowly.
Those steps are, in some senses, the easy part. But there are other changes
which will require a more fundamental change of mindset in many of the countries
involved. Empowering poor coastal communities with land rights can have
a multiplier effect. Lack of well-defined land and property rights have
severely restricted the ability of poor people to collateralize their assets,
as Peruvian economist Hernado de Soto has shown in his book, "The Mystery
of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else."
According to his estimates, people in poor countries hold more than $9 trillion
in what he refers to as "dead capital" -- property that's owned informally,
but not legally -- and hence not capable of being monetized. Once their
property rights are recognized, people will make better economic use of
their assets. That will make it possible to insure the land, most likely
diverting property development to less risky areas.
There's also a major political difference between the comparatively well-protected
Pacific Ocean nations and their more vulnerable counterparts in the Indian
Ocean. While the Pacific Ocean states are intertwined in a web of economic
relationships, those in the Indian Ocean have limited trading relationships
or cooperative mechanisms. The presence of three great trading nations in
the Pacific -- the U.S., Japan, and China (to say nothing of Singapore,
Hong Kong and Taiwan) -- has ensured that other Pacific countries have incentives
to trade and communicate with each other. Regional building blocks, like
the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, have grown far beyond their
Cold War logic of being an anti-Communist bulwark.
By contrast, Indian Ocean countries trade more with other parts of the world
than with each other. Despite the presence of large, vibrant economies such
as Australia and India, a variety of obstacles -- mainly political -- have
so far prevented the emergence of any regional building block. Indeed many
of the trading relationships that existed across the Indian Ocean in the
past have been replaced by an emphasis on exports to other regions. A Pacific
Ocean-type tsunami warning system, or a broader disaster-management system,
though unglamorous, could provide the missing glue. The Asia-Pacific Economic
Cooperation forum emerged out of similarly dismal-sounding Pacific Economic
Cooperation Council, which spent the better part of a decade negotiating
and refining arcane trade policies, practices, and laws. A shared perception
of the danger posed by tsunami could likewise bring countries along the
Indian Ocean closer together.
Such steps will require significant political willpower and won't, of course,
prevent another tsunami. But they will improve the lives of people in the
region, and generate resources, so that the countries are in a better position
to bear its burden and make the human toll less catastrophic.
Mr. Tripathi is a London-based wrtiter.