Wednesday, January 26, 2005

And My Suspicions Were Right.

The tsunami disaster has, I think, affected us all. There are still references to it, though I still detect something distinct in coverage between it and 9/11, despite the ten-fold nature of the deaths. Vandana Shiva, for those who receive Z Net Commentaries, wrote an excellent article about the tsunami disaster. She pointed out a few things.

The pressures of globalizing tourist trade and trade writ large have been to build huge condos and skyscraping hotels on beaches, and the coastal ecosystems have been damaged by coral farming, cruise ships, shrimp farms, oil refineries, and all sorts of other ecological damage. The coastal and littoral vegetation and life, such as coral and mangrove trees, do something similar to their role in absorbing avalanches in the Alps and floods: they suck up some of the water and also serve as a sturdy impact breaker. Studies of the Orissa cyclone in 1999 showed that areas where mangroves still grew were much less strongly affected. Further, studies of the shrimp farms have shown that they scarcely produce anything, which makes sense given the size of the farms vs. the size of the ocean and a number of other obvious differences. These shrimp farms' costs far outweigh their impact: Each acre of a shrimp farm drastically affects 100 acres of coastal and littoral land, and every dollar made in exports costs ten dollars. (This is a great example of a small externality, incidentally, the type that traditional court systems just are not prepared to handle). Studies of the tsunami also showed that area with the most vegetation and least ecological damage did best. To quote Shiva:

"Nagapattinam, the worst impacted zone by the Tsunami was also the worst impacted by industrialshrimp farms. The indigenous tribes of Andaman and Nicobar, the Onges, the Jarawas, theSentinelese, the Shompen, who live with a light ecological foot print had the lowest casualitieseven though in the Indian subcontinent they were closest to the epicenter of the Earthquake. TheGovernment of Kerala, observing that the Tsunami left less destruction in regions protected bymangroves than barren and exposed beaches has started a Rs. 350 million project for insulatingKerala's coasts against tidal surges with mangroves (Ref : After the disaster, Kerala's greendrive, Indian Express, January 3, 2005)."

Shiva does make a few mistakes in her commentary, though. I agree that, were we to have a general better communal culture, information could have been communicated that was detected and there could have been some evacuation. After all, in several areas evacuations were stopped due to concerns over their cost and inconvenience. She also is correct in saying that our priorities are focused on the stock market being instantaneous up-to-the-second response time while our tsunami response takes some time. But it is also true that it's the real world, not information. It DOES take days to find bodies, and most of the time, relief agencies make guesstimates as to the number of dead and injured because there's no other way to do it. However, she is correct in noting that, as much as we pretend otherwise, we still live in a vulnerable age even with all of our instantaneous information systems. People noted that animal casualties were relatively minor. Elephants, for example, have essentially seismic pads in their feet, and there is essentially an animal crisis network where, if the birds and elephants start running somewhere, so do all the other animals.

Shiva also notes that people have been saying, on Indian media no less, that the market will not be affected by the tsunami. That indicates rather clearly how very limited the economic focus is. There'll be MASSIVE effects from all the dead who can no longer consume or produce, the widows and grieving families whose consumption patterns will change, the rubble and destruction that will have to be rebuilt.

Shiva points out that, although tsunamis are indeed rare in this part of the world, there will be other disasters, perhaps floods linked with earthquakes when an earthquake breaks a dam. As she says,

"The next disaster will not necessarily be a Tsunami. It could be a flood caused by dam-inducedearthquake on a Ganges where the Tehri dam is being built on a seismic fault. Water from the damwill be taken hundreds of miles to Delhi to be privatized by Suez, the worlds biggest watermarketeer. The 260.5 metre high dam will impound 3.22 million cubic metres of water which willextend up to 45 kms in the Bhagirathi valley and 25 kms in the Bhilangana Sq.kms.If the dam triggers an earthquake, in less than an hour and a half, a 260 meter high wall ofwater twenty times higher than the Tsunami would wide out the holy cities of Rishikesh andHaridwar, in 8 hours, a 10 meter high water wall would impact Meerut, 214 kms downstream, in 12hours, a 8.56 meter high surge would impact Bulanshahar, 286 kms away. "

What we need are economic and political systems that can respond to crises like these instantaneously and can further process ecological information and put those needs over the needs of some private actors to profit marvelously. I'm afraid that a much more universal disaster is on the way if we don't.


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