Monday, December 27, 2004

Death Came From The Sea

The day after any terrible catastrophe is always a day of sombre reckoning. Reuters is now reporting a death toll of 14,425 from yeserday's massive earthquake and its deadly tidal wave aftermath - and that figure is bound to rise. The photographic evidence here and here is heart-rending. Survivors try desperately to make sense of the senseless. "Death came from the sea", says Satya Kumari, a construction worker living on the outskirts of Pondicherry, India. "The waves just kept chasing us. It swept away all our huts. What did we do to deserve this?". Of course nobody did anything to deserve this though better preventative measures should have been in place.

Beyond the shock and numbing realisation of loss a number of tasks are urgent for the people who have survived. Most pressing, of course, is to mobilise
aid teams to find the thousands still missing and to bring help to the hurt and homeless. This will require money that is beyond the compass of some of the poorest countries that have been affected. But the immediate health risks for the survivors are also potentially deadly. As the leader in today's Guardian notes:
The health hazards [are] obvious: the unburied bodies which will quickly decompose in tropical temperatures; water supplies polluted from both huge quantities of salt water sloshing around and overflowing sewage; plus already over-stretched and under-funded health systems with acute shortages of medical supplies facing huge extra numbers of injured people.
If the disaster is not to become much worse then the international community has to honour its pledges to help.

In the longer term, something must be done to install the kind of early warning system, similar to that which already operates in the Pacific. There is a rather unsettling report here:
An early warning system that could have saved thousands of lives lost in the devastating tsunamis that swept around the rim of the Indian Ocean yesterday was talked about but not acted on by governments in the region, it was revealed last night.
According to the US Geological Survey, "most of those people could have been saved if they had had a tsunami warning system in place or tide gauges". If this is the case then the governments of the region must now surely put into place such a system. It's the least that these devastated communities deserve so that something better comes out of the catastrophe.


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