Asian Earthquake and Tsunami Disaster
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Boxing day, 2004, one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history (measuring 9 on the Richter Scale), struck just off Sumatra, Indonesia, in a fault line running under the sea. The rupture caused massive waves, or tsunamis, that hurtled away from the epicenter, reaching shores as far away as Africa. Some 230,000 people were killed and the livelihoods of millions were destroyed in over 10 countries. This has been one of the biggest natural disasters in recent human history.
Please note, this page cannot aim to provide up to date detailed coverage of events as they unfold, as it is beyond my scope and ability. Some of the mentioned statistics may likely change very quickly. For such information, please see the More Information section below. Instead, this page provides an overview of some of the broader issues that this event has highlighted.
On this page:
- One of the largest earthquakes in recorded history
- Enormous Death toll and Devastation
- Greatest ever peacetime relief operation underway
- Aid in the context of Third World Debt
- Will the world keep its promised pledges?
- Financial Markets and Economic Impacts
- Tsunami Warning System. Could impact have been minimized?
- Rebuilding Broken Political Bridges
- Almost as many children die each week around the world
- More Information
One of the largest earthquakes in recorded history
Measuring 9 on the Richter Scale, the earthquake that hit under the sea near the northern Indonesian island of Sumatra was the strongest earthquake in the world for 40 years.
The massive 1,000km rupture along the Australian and Eurasian tectonic plates resulted in huge tsunami waves (or sea surges) crashing into coastal areas across south and east Asia, even reaching eastern Africa.
Countries affected were:
- Sri Lanka
- South Africa
For details of country-level impacts, please see the More Information section below.
Enormous Death toll and Devastation
It is believed that 230,000 people died3.
For those who have survived, the future looks bleak as whole communities have been wiped out, and many of the survivors have been left homeless. The United Nations estimates that some 5 million lives have also been affected.
There is now great concern that disease will result from poor sanitation and lack of clean water. In addition, it is feared that there will be a proliferation of endemic disesases as a result of the stagnant pools of water that have been created. It is feared that these will claim just as many lives as the waves did.
This disaster also has to be taken in the context of on-going problems. Some regions, such as north eastern Sri Lanka, or Aceh in Indonesia, have seen violent conflicts for many years, as separatist rebels struggle with the government. For example, the United Nations reports that many landmines have been dislodged by the tsunamis in Sri Lanka5. These were planted during the long-running civil war. The tsunami waves have spread them to other areas, and no-one would know where, exactly. As people slowly return to their homes and villages, they could face yet more problems.
The same United Nations report above, also notes that some World Heritage sites may have been affected, and the damage is currently being assessed.
Greatest ever peacetime relief operation underway
The United Nations says this is the largest ever relief operation it has undertaken.
As the World Bank reports, U.S. President Bush says America will lead a global relief effort7, creating a coalition of US-led countries.
The US is often regarded as hostile to the United Nations, the premier international body, and so this coalition effort would appear to conflict and overlap with the enormous world wide, United Nations-led, relief operations.
The BBC notes,
[US Secretary of State, ] Mr Powell said the UN had chief responsibility for co-ordinating the aid effort8, despite a move by Washington to set up a core group of donor countries with India, Australia and Japan.
The UN head for this massive effort himself has said that this coalition is welcome, and complimentary to the United Nations efforts, not counter-productive.
By the time you read this, these numbers above are likely to be out of date, so please consult the sources listed above for updated numbers.
In addition to the above numbers, a lot more has also been offered, such as military aid.
Even though much has been pledged, as the BBC (mentioned above) also noted,
Delivery of aid remains a problem as much of the region's infrastructure has been shattered. Some aid is not getting to areas that need it urgently, such as parts of Aceh.
Charity organizations and groups, such as the Disasters Emergency Committee in the U.K., (the main emergency organization), are stressing that less than a couple of cents for each dollar is going to administration costs. Furthermore, they suggest that people pledge money rather than food and other items, as this money can be spent nearer the location, so that things can be bought cheaper, and that local industries in affected countries can benefit, and that the relief experts can best determine what needs to be purchased.
In addition, charities and humanitarian organizations are raising the concern that attention must also turn to medium and long term rebuilding11, as mainstream interest in relief and disasters typically lasts only while it makes for sensational headlines.
Aid in the context of Third World Debt
As can be seen above, generous aid has been provided in hundreds of millions of dollars. Crippling Third World debt however, is in the hundreds of billions:
Odious third world debt issues are often ignored by the rich nations, or promises to deal with them have often turned out to be hollow. (This site's section on third world debt13 has more about how it impacts poor countries' ability to develop, alleviate poverty, and rebuild from disaster.)
Against the backdrop of this disaster’s recovery and rebuilding, this issue must surely be addressed in depth. Rich countries, the World Bank and the IMF have already indicated that there will be some early discussions and meetings to see how to deal with this, at least preempting any early criticism.
Will the world keep its promised pledges?
Charities and the United Nations are also warning that based on previous experiences, large pledges of donations can often be reduced later. The following are some examples of how this happens:
- Governments may renege on their pledges;
- Double accounting may occur where some of the promised money is actually diverted from existing aid;
- Less is actually delivered.
The British newspaper, The Guardian, captures this and is worth quoting at length: