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Published in the 1-15 Feb 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Tsunami and the role of the US

While earthquakes and tsunamis are natural disasters, the decision to spend billions of dollars on wars of conquest while ignoring simple measures that can save human lives is not. 

At least 134 ,000 people were killed by the tsunami that devastated coastlines from Indonesia to Somalia. Almost a third of the dead are children. Thousands are still missing and millions are homeless in 11 countries. Hundreds of thousands have lost everything, and millions face a bleak future because of polluted drinking water, a lack of sanitation and no health services, according to UN undersecretary Jan Egeland, who is in charge of emergency relief coordination. 

Egeland said, "We cannot fathom the cost of these poor societies and the nameless fishermen and fishing villages and so on that have just been wiped out. Hundreds of thousands of livelihoods have gone." 

No money for early warning system 
Much of this death and destruction could have been prevented with a simple and inexpensive system of buoys. Officials in Thailand and Indonesia have said that an immediate public warning could have saved lives, but that they could not know of the danger because there is no international system in place to track tsunamis in the Indian Ocean. 

Such a system is not difficult or expensive to install. In fact, the detector buoys that monitor tsunamis have been available for decades and the U. S. has had a monitoring system in place for more than half a century. More than 50 seismometers are scattered across the Northwest to detect and measure earthquakes that might spawn tsunamis. In the middle of the Pacific are six buoys equipped with sensors called "tsunameters" that measure small changes in water pressure and programmed to automatically alert the country's two tsunami-warning centers in Hawaii and Alaska. 

Dr. Eddie Bernard, director of the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, says just a few buoys could do the job. Scientists wanted to place two more tsunami meters in the Indian Ocean, including one near Indonesia, but the plan had not been funded, said Bernard. The tsunameters each cost only $250,000. 

A mere half million dollars could have provided an early warning system that could have saved thousands of lives. This should be compared to the $1,500,000,000 the U. S. spends every day to fund the Pentagon war machine. This means that for what the U. S. is spending for less than one second of bombing and destruction it could construct a system that could have prevented thousands of needless deaths. Lack of funding for an inexpensive, low-tech early warning system is simply criminal negligence. 

Indian Minister of State for Science and Technology Kapil Sibal said, "If the country had such an alert system in place, we could have warned the coastal areas of the imminent danger and avoided the loss of life." But there is no room in the Bush budget for such life-saving measures; the U. S. government's priorities are corporate profit and endless war. 

At a meeting of the UN Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission in June experts concluded that the "Indian Ocean has a significant threat from both local and distant tsunamis"and should have a warning network. But no action was agreed upon. Geologist Brian Atwater of the U. S. Geological Survey said, "Sumatra has an ample history of great earthquakes, which makes the lack of a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean all the more tragic. Everyone knew Sumatra was a loaded gun." 

U. S. government failed to warn region 
Although the local governments had no real warning, the U. S. government did, and it failed to pass along the information. Within minutes of the massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Indonesia, U. S. scientists working with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suspected that a deadly wave was spreading through the Indian Ocean. They did not call anyone in the governments in the area. Jeff LaDouce, an official in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that they e-mailed Indonesian officials, but said that he wasn't aware what happened after they sent the e-mails. 

In this day of instant communications, controlled in a large part by the U. S., it is possible to communicate within minutes to every part of the globe. It is beyond belief that the officials at the NOAA could not find any method to directly and immediately contact civilian authorities in the area. Their decision not to do so may have cost thousands of lives. 

Even a few minutes warning would have given the inhabitants a chance to seek higher ground. The NOAA had several hours notice before the first waves hit shore. Tim Walsh, geologic-hazards program manager for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, said, "Fifty feet of elevation would be enough to escape the worst of the waves. In most places, 25 feet would be sufficient. If you go uphill or inland, the effect of the tsunami will be diminished." But the inhabitants of the area weren't given the warning - as a result, television and radio alerts were not issued in Thailand until nearly an hour after the waves had hit and thousands were already dead. 

The failure to make any real effort to warn the people of the region, knowing that tens of thousands of lives were at stake, is part of a pattern of imperial contempt and racism that has become the cornerstone of U. S. policies worldwide. 

The NOAA immediately warned the U. S. Naval Station at Diego Garcia, which suffered very little damage from the tsunami. It is telling that the NOAA was able to get the warning to the US Navy base in the area, but wouldn't pick up the phone and call the civil authorities in the region to warn them. They made sure that a US military base was notified and did almost nothing to issue a warning to the civilian inhabitants who were in the direct path of the wave--a warning that might have saved thousands of lives. This is criminal negligence. 

Disease may kill tens of thousands more 
The 134,000 deaths directly resulting from the tsunami are just the beginning of the tragedy. Disease could claim as many victims as have been killed in the weekend's earthquake-sparked tsunami, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Medical experts warn that malaria, cholera and dengue fever are expected to pose serious health threats to survivors in the area, where waves spoiled drinking-water supplies, polluted streets and homes with raw sewage, swept away medical clinics, ruined food stocks and left acres of stagnant ponds where malaria-carrying mosquitoes can breed. 

"The biggest threat to survivors is from the spread of infection through contamination of drinking water and putrefying bodies left by the receding waters," said Jamie McGoldrick, a senior U. N. health official. 

"Within a few days, we fear, there is going to be outbreaks of disease," Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said. "Cholera is going to be a problem. This is going to be the most important thing in a few days." 

The response of the U. S. government to this emergency is to offer a paltry $15 million "aid package." To put this in perspective, this is one tenth of one percent of what Washington has spent thus far on the war against the people of Iraq. 

Money for human needs, not for war 
The U. S. and British governments owe billions of dollars in reparations to the countries of this region and to all other formerly colonized countries. The poverty and lack of infrastructure that contribute to and exacerbate the scope of this disaster are the direct result of colonial rule and neo-colonial policies. Although economic and political policies cannot control the weather, they can determine how a nation is impacted by natural disasters. 

We must hold the U. S. government accountable for their role in tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of deaths. We must demand that it stop spending $1.5 billion each day for war and occupation and instead provide health care for the victims of this tragedy, build an early warning system, and rebuild the homes and infrastructure destroyed by the tsunami. 

Sara Flounders Dustin Langley
The International Action Center

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