The Tsunami Disaster – Horror Without End

Ten days after the devastating tsunami that wreaked havoc in the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004 it is becoming increasingly clear that much more could have been done to avert the massive destruction and the death of 146,000 people (so far) in the region. It is also clear that a lot more could be done to assist in aid and relief after the disaster.

Ten days after the devastating tsunami that wreaked havoc in the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004 it is becoming increasingly clear that much more could have been done to avert the massive destruction and the death of 146,000 people (so far) in the region. It is also clear that a lot more could be done to assist in aid and relief after the disaster.

Colin Powell, the outgoing US Secretary of State, currently on a tour of the area to assess the damage claimed yesterday that the damage caused by the disaster was worse than if a war had taken place. And Colin Powell should know about the destruction caused by a war – aside from the fact that he cited his own experience in the Vietnam War he also helped to organize the current war in Iraq, where the US and the UK are responsible for the destruction of the country, its infrastructure, and the deaths of over 100,000 people.

The images of the carnage have moved millions of ordinary people around the world to donate millions of dollars in aid to the region, but it must be asked – could this all have been averted in the first place?

No warning

Tad Murty, a Canadian Tsunami specialist, estimates that 90-95 percent of lives lost could have been saved if there had been a tsunami warning system in place for the Indian Ocean. He pointed to Japan as an example of a country that is hit regularly by tsunamis and suffers few casualties. “The waves are totally predictable,” he said. “From where this earthquake happened to hit, the travel time for waves to hit the tip of India was four hours. That’s enough time for a warning.” (Globe and Mail, 29/12/04)

A tsunami monitoring system

In fact there is a warning system in the Pacific Ocean, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) as well as the Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) system, developed by wealthy nations like Japan and US. No such system exists in the Indian Ocean, because “tsunamis are rare”, and because governments in the region claim that the equipment is too expensive. Yet DART’s total running cost for 2002 was only $2 million – a fraction of the cost of some of the military budgets in the region.

The PTWC monitored the 9.0 earthquake of the northwest coast of Sumatra. The PTWC contacted member nations stating that there was no threat of a tsunami in the Pacific Ocean. Significantly, of the 11 countries affected by the disaster only Thailand and Indonesia are members of the PTWC. Charles McCreery, director of the PTWC said: “we tried to do what we could. We don’t have any contacts in our address book for anybody in that particular part of the world.” An hour after the quake, the initial estimate of its size had been revised from 8 to 8.5 and a second alert had been issued warning of a possible tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Geophysicist Barry Hirshorn said: “We started thinking about who we could call. We talked to the State Department Operations Centre and to the military. We called embassies. We talked to the navy in Sri Lanka, any local government official we could get hold of.” Later Mr. McCreery also confirmed that the PTWC warned the US Navy, the US State Department and the government of Australia. The State Department claims to have notified India, but the Indian government says that it received no warning in the two hours between the earthquake and the arrival of the tidal wave. The Sri Lankan government also received no warning.

The British-controlled island of Diego Garcia did apparently receive a warning. This island is home to a US military base from where military raids have been staged against Afghanistan and Iraq. The US base, directly in the path of the oncoming tsunami, was evacuated and reportedly suffered no damage. Certainly, had the people who had been removed from the island in the 1950s (without compensation) to make way for the military base still been on the island, they would have received no warning and suffered from the tsunami as well.

It is estimated that with as a little as a 15 minute warning, and a clear directive to flee, most people who had no idea of the impending doom approaching, could have been saved.

In the countries the tsunami was approaching, the response was disorganized. In the countries that were warned a response to the disaster was slowed by lack of preparation, inadequate infrastructure, and bureaucratism. Many who received the warnings did not know how to interpret the warnings, or were indifferent to them. In Indonesia, the seismologists recorded the earthquake but could issue no warning because they had no telephone line on their office after being relocated in 2000.

Profits over people

Seismologists in Thailand registered the earthquake, and Thai Meteorological Department officials were attending a seminar when the news reached them. They held an emergency session to decide upon a response to the threat. Unnamed sources at the meeting said that the danger was discussed, but that it was decided to issue no warning to unsuspecting citizens and tourists.

There were no tidal sensors in place, and there was no way of confirming whether there was in fact the risk of a tsunami. More than that though, they feared the response of both the government and tourist businesses if they issued a false warning. Keep in mind that the earthquake occurred during peak tourist season and that hotels and beaches were full. One official told The Nation, “If we issued a warning, which would have led to evacuation [and if nothing happened], what would happen then? Business would be instantaneously affected. It would be beyond the Meteorological Department’s ability to handle. We could go under if [the tsunami] didn’t come.”

Pacific Tsunami Warning Center

Several scientists have been warning of the dangers of a tsunami in the Indian Ocean for years. Regarded as “crackpots”, they have been sidelined and silenced. Samith Dhamasaroj, former director of the Thai Meteorological Department, warned of the dangers as far back as seven years ago. He was quickly silenced. He was simply advocating an early warning system, including sirens at beachside hotels. Some provinces even banned him from entering because “they said [he] was damaging their image with foreign tourists.”

This would seem to be consistent with previous events. Chcheep Mahachan of the Thailand seismological bureau said, “A proper warning was not given. If we had given the warning and then it didn’t happen, then it would have been the death of tourism in those areas.” The chief of the bureau, Sulamee Prachaub, cited a recent example: “Five years ago, the meteorological department issued a warning of a possible wave after an earthquake in Papua New Guinea, but the tourism authority complained that such a warning would hurt tourism.” An alert was never issued and 2000 people died and thousands were left homeless after the tsunami triggered by the earthquake in Papua New Guinea in 1998.

The logic of the tourist industries is ridiculous. They fear that a false warning will damage the tourist industry, which is vital to many of these countries. If a false warning would damage the industry, what about a disaster occuring where no warning was issued because profits could have been damaged? Tourists would feel much safer, and be more inclined to visit a country that would have their safety and lives in mind, and would appreciate a false warning over no warning any day. Had there been a false warning in Papua New Guinea or in Thailand, many tourists would be inclined to return knowing that their safety was a concern of the government and the tourist bureau. What about now? Who wants to visit these countries knowing that only profits are a concern, and not the safety of tourists? Who would want to go there now knowing that warnings of tsunamis were suppressed in order to save money?

Even more profits over people

Despicably, it was reported yesterday that banks and credit card companies are making massive profits on charity and aid donations made in the UK for disaster relief.

It was only after massive public outcry that these banks and credit card companies agreed to repay the some £300,000 in profits they had made from the tsunami appeal. The profit was made on a 3 percent fee charged on charitable donations made over the phone and on the Internet. It is estimated that this £300,000 could pay for 140 tanks, which could provide water for 420,000 people.

Obviously people were incensed and disgusted that banks and financial institutions would be taking profits off of charitable donations and off the suffering and deaths of hundreds of thousands. People around the world have been moved to donate money to aid and relief for the millions of people affected by the disaster – the total amount donated in the UK reached £76 million yesterday. Banks and credit card companies making profits off charitable donations is still causing controversy in other countries, such as Spain, where they have not yet agreed to pay the money back made on charges to donations.

Even if this profit is paid back, we must wonder whether most of this money will reach its destination. After the earthquake in Bam, Iran one year ago, $1 billion dollars in aid from governments was promised in aid. So far only $17 million has been paid and arrived. Of the $2 billion promised in aid after the tsunami, plus funds coming in from ordinary people around the planet, how much will actually arrive?


The Indonesian military will also try to profit from the tsunami disaster in the province of Aceh. The Indonesian province of Aceh was one of the worst hit regions by the tsunami. As many as 100,000 people may have been killed in the province and elsewhere in North Sumatra as a result of the earthquake.

Volunteers, relief workers and families are busy collecting and searching for bodies in the area, yet Indonesian soldiers are continuing their offensive against separatist rebels.

The mass media have claimed that a de facto cease-fire has been in place between the Indonesian army and separatist rebels since the Dec. 26 disaster. Yet there are no signs that the civil emergency, imposed in 2004, will be lifted.

An Indonesian military spokesman confirmed that only two-thirds of the military’s 40,000-strong force in the province was taking part in the relief effort while the remaining third was engaged in military operations against insurgents.

The Indonesian government had also delayed the arrival of international aid and volunteers to the region, continuing a policy pursued for years banning international observers and aid. News is coming out of Jakarta that the military is raiding Free Aceh Movement (GAM) hideouts and is interrogating refugees and survivors who approach camps in search of food and aid.

Lt. Col. D.J. Nachrowi told the Jakarta Post that the disaster should not be seen as a way for the military to suspend security operations against GAM. Stratfor has said that the tsunami disaster could prove to be a boon to Jakarta in its campaign against GAM. “President Yudhoyono will send more troops into the province to rebuild and clean up ... If GAM does not agree to settle the problem peacefully, Yudhoyono will have more troops on hand to clean them out.”

The cold-blooded calculations of imperialism

US President George Bush seemed positively irritated that he had to interrupt his holiday to announce $15 million in aid. This was a full three days after one of the greatest natural disasters in the last 100 years.

The initial $15 million in aid was ridiculed in the press worldwide, which prompted the US government to increase the amount to $35 million. Compared to military spending in Iraq, this amount was laughable.

After much controversy the US then announced that it would give $350 million dollars in aid. But compared to government’s response to the hurricanes that hit Florida this year, $350 million dollars is a drop in the hat. Some $3.17 billion dollars was pumped into the state after the hurricanes that killed 116 people. The financial response to the disaster in Florida was 100 times greater than the response to the tsunami disaster in South Asia.

The British government initially offered £1 million, moving this up later to £50 million, even though they said they would match donations from the public, which have now reached £76 million. The Guardian compared government spending on other programmes compared to emergency aid after the tsunami, stating that “The cost of the new national identity card scheme, for example, bringing food and shelter to no one, is estimated at £3.1bn.” (The Guardian, 05/01/05). This puts the aid donation of the British government in a new, shameful light. Ordinary working people in the UK have donated £76 million, profoundly moved by the images of destruction and suffering from the disaster, yet the government could only initially offer £1 million.

As well, a Spanish NGO coalition has denounced that 90% of the “aid” promised by the Spanish government will be in the form of soft loans, linked to the purchase of Spanish goods and services. Thus, only 5 million euro will be an actual donation, while 53 million euro will be soft loans which will eventually end up in the coffers of Spanish companies.

Bush has now come out in favour of the construction of a worldwide warning system against natural disasters, modelled on the PTWC built by the US and Japan. The cost of this system is estimated to be around $150 million dollars, far, far less than the cost of one week in the war in Iraq, which is estimated to be $5 billion.

The Guardian published an article with the following figures:

“The US government has so far pledged $350m to the victims of the tsunami, and the UK government £50m ($96m). The US has spent $148 billion on the Iraq war and the UK £6bn ($11.5bn). The war has been running for 656 days. This means that the money pledged for the tsunami disaster by the United States is the equivalent of one and a half day’s spending in Iraq. The money the UK has given equates to five and a half days of our involvement in the war.

“It looks still worse when you compare the cost of the war to the total foreign aid budget. The UK has spent almost twice as much on creating suffering in Iraq as it spends annually on relieving it elsewhere. The United States gives just over $16bn in foreign aid: less than one ninth of the money it has burnt so far in Iraq.” (The Guardian, 04/01/05)

Most major financial journals and magazines, such as The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal have been running cold-blooded articles from a financial perspective since the disaster. Knowing that the world economy is extremely fragile, and that a major disaster such as the tsunami could have a major impact on it, even to the extent that it could tip the world economy towards a crisis, these articles have concluded that the events of the last 10 days were not important at all and that there will be no major economic impact. This is a way of calming the nerves of investors, urging them not to panic and that everything will be fine.

The Financial Times estimates that the tsunami disaster will cost insurance companies around $14 billion, far less than the pay-outs after the Florida hurricanes. One reason is that the tsunami is classified as an “Act of God”, so most people will not receive pay-outs. The other reason is that “the tsunami largely affected economically poor areas with little industry or infrastructure”.

The poverty in the areas means that most peoples’ property and lives were not insured, and coupled with the fact that the tsunami can be classified as an Act of God, the costs will be greatly reduced to the world insurance and financial system.

World capitalists are also extremely happy that the big natural gas plant in northern Sumatra, owned by ExxonMobil, was not damaged and was able to restore production just hours after the earthquake. There has been no significant disruption in fuel supplies and transfers for industrial countries.

Just a few days after the disaster, major New York papers were running articles about Christmas bonuses handed out on Wall Street next to articles about the disaster. The bonuses on Wall Street amounted to $15.9 billion for 2004, which easily towers above the entire damage and money offered in aid after one of the greatest natural disasters in decades.

Bush has now employed his father and Bill Clinton to drum up corporate donations in aid, which have been predictably stingy. The Guardian published some revealing figures from the UK corporate elite today:

“Corporate Britain was quick to realise it needed to stand with the public mood and publicise its concern. The major companies doubtless feel proud of their generosity. They shouldn’t. They should be ashamed.

“Vodafone announced it would be giving £1m and matching all staff donations. A million pounds is a lot of money to you and me, but not to Vodafone, to which it is pocket change. The company’s annual profit, registered last May, was £10bn. That means the company made substantially more than a million pounds an hour. Yet that is all they gave – less than an hour’s profit. It is less than they gave their new boss, Arun Sarin, for his annual bonus.

“Put another way, Vodafone has given a mere one tenthousandth of its annual profit. (Not its total revenue, mind, which would be a larger figure, just its profit.) Think of your own annual income, after you’ve paid off all your expenses. Now work out what one ten-thousandth of that sum would be. If you had given just that amount to the tsunami appeal, would that be enough? Would you announce it with pride? (...)

“BP gave a healthy looking £1.6m: fine, until you realise the oil giant’s expected profits for 2004 weigh in at £9bn.

“Abbey National’s trading profit from its core businesses topped the billionpound mark in 2004, even if the company made an overall loss. Times must be tough, though, because when it dipped in its corporate pocket it found just £25,000. I’ve done the sums: on my comfortable Guardian salary, that’s the equivalent of me giving less than two quid.

”Tesco is proud that it has sent food, water and hygiene products to Thailand and Sri Lanka – but it’s still a shock that, with annual profits of £1.7bn, it only managed to give an anaemic £100,000.

“Philip Green, the BHS boss, is a famously generous man, giving serious sums to charity. But even his £100,000 in cash and £1m worth of clothes looks like less of a sacrifice when one notes that his Arcadia group paid him a dividend of £460m last year – and that he spent £5m on a toga party to mark his 50th birthday two years ago.

“None of this should really come as a surprise. Battlehardened viewers of Children in Need and Comic Relief will have noted the corporate givers' eagerness to grab free publicity – handing over a cheque on TV – combined with their stunning levels of stinginess. The sums they give are the coppers down their sofa, the lint in their pockets – and we are expected to be grateful.

“The problem is not just rich companies, but rich individuals. According to the Charities Aid Foundation, the wealthiest 10% of UK income earners give just 0.7% of their household expenditure to charity, while the poorest 10% allocate 3% of theirs.” (The Guardian, 05/01/05)

Compare these corporate and government donations with figures listed on the Labourstart webpage covering trade union assistance and donations in aid and relief to victims of tsunami, plus the incredible amount of money donated by ordinary working people. It reveals the cold, stingy, greediness of governments and corporations, and shows that true human compassion and empathy comes from ordinary working people, moved by the images of destruction and suffering seen in newspapers and televisions around the world. As ordinary people, we can empathize and know that we would be desperate for help and assistance in their situation, and are ready to offer a much more sizeable portion of our incomes to help our fellow man. Compare this to the cold and cynical calculations of the corporations and their stooges in government, who only decided to offer more money when they realized that donations from the public, from regular people, would absolutely dwarf their own.

Debt Relief

British Chancellor Gordon Brown is spearheading a plan to place a moratorium on debt payments to countries affected by the tsunami. He estimates that his plan could save the worst affected countries of Indonesia and Sri Lanka $3bn a year alone. Canada has already placed a moratorium on debt payments from affected countries, and Brown is confident that other countries will follow suit. But problems have already developed as Australia has already ruled out debt relief, in particular to Indonesia which owes Australia $1.4 billion dollars. The Australian government hypocritically claims that the reason for this decision is that debt relief is not the answer because the money saved would not necessarily go to the people in need. The government also said that it preferred to channel resources directly “so it knows exactly how the money is used.”

According to the World Bank the total external debt of the countries affected is:

  • Indonesia $132.2bn
  • India $104.4bn
  • Thailand $59.2bn
  • Malaysia $48.6bn
  • Sri Lanka $9.6bn
  • Somalia $2.7bn
  • Seychelles $560m
  • Maldives $270m
and that debt as a percentage of national annual income is:
  • Indonesia 80%
  • India 21%
  • Thailand 48%
  • Sri Lanka 59%
  • Maldives 45%
    (Source: World Development Movement)

These figures mean that annual repayment costs are:

  • Indonesia $13.7bn
  • India $13bn
  • Thailand $17.9bn
  • Sri Lanka $653m
  • Maldives $20.8m

Based on those figures, the WDM said that Mr Brown’s $3bn in annual debt relief “will cover one-and-a-half months” of debt repayments for the five countries most affected by the tsunami disaster.

What this means is that most of the money donated in aid for victims of the tsunami, will simply end up returning to western banks in the form of debt repayments. These figures put into context the so-called “generosity” of capitalist governments around the world.

The failure of capitalism

What this all comes down to is that capitalism has failed the people affected by the tsunami disaster – both in terms of protecting their lives and offering them safety by being unable to offer an advanced warning system. It has also failed in that the governments and corporations of the world are unwilling to offer even a fraction in aid of the sum made in profits or spent on military adventures.

150,000 people have died, and millions are homeless. Hundreds of thousands more people are expected to die as a result of disease and starvation after the disaster. The scope and scale of the disaster reveal that no one country alone has the resources to protect people against such disasters or pay for aid and relief afterwards. The scale of the tsunami disaster has revealed the weakness of capitalism and the weakness of the regimes in the region – to the extent that many of these governments could be facing revolutionary upheavals once the initial shock has worn off.

The world capitalist system was unable to plan for such an event, and is unable to plan its resources to respond and rebuild afterwards. As a result hundreds of thousands have died needlessly. If the world’s resources were owned and coordinated into a democratically planned economy by the workers and the poor of the world, we could ensure that damage caused by natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis is minimized and that relief and aid afterwards to rebuild would be much more efficiently organized and generous.

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