Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Horror Mounts

Three days have now passed. The horror of the catastrophe in the Indian Ocean just gets worse. The latest reports on deaths - more than 60,000 - can be found here, here, here and here. Predictably, the figures from Indonesia are the worst. The Indonesian government puts the death toll in the country at more than 33,000, with many still unaccounted for.

Here I offer a few reflections on what has happened and what needs to be done.

Shelter, medicine, food and water - these are needed now. The obvious priority is
to prevent the spread of disease, especially malaria and cholera. According to some sources, disease could actually double the number of fatalities. The World Health Organisation highlights the health issue here:
Besides the need for mass management of casualties in hospitals, WHO foresees the urgent need for reactivation and boosting the capacities of local systems for health care delivery. At short term, in a few days, additional threats to human life can be expected to arise from contaminated water sources. Strong coordination will be needed to make the most of local and national efforts and international good will.
Surprisingly, some commentators have been sceptical about the efficacy of an early warning system for the Indian Ocean, similar to that operating in the Pacific. The argument simply does not make sense. The tidal wave that hit Penang, Malaysia, for example, occurred more than three hours after the earthquake struck. This was plenty of time for a warning to be issued and for the coastal areas to be cleared. There is also some evidence of complacency by the authorities. In Thailand, according to this Guardian report,
the meteorology department said it played down the impact of the earthquake because officials were wary about provoking panic. "A proper warning was not given .... If we had given the warning and then it hadn't happened, then it would have been the death of tourism in those areas". In Malaysia, the authorities said the usual alert was received after the quake but there was no mention of tidal waves. There surely has to be a real effort at regional cooperation in this area in the very near future.

The southeastern coast of Burma was hit by the tidal wave and there are reports of large-scale flooding in the Irrawaddy delta. But the military junta has seen fit neither to release information about the impact nor to request international aid. Every effort should be made to persuade them to do so.

Finally, Norm has a moving set of reflections on the catastrophe where he says this: "there is something enduring here about the human condition in the face of calamity". He's right. And he quotes from those caught up in these terrible events - the power of "ordinary human experience". Here I offer a few more from Malaysia:
"My wife, two daughters, three other relatives and I were taking a walk by the beach on Sunday morning when we saw a white foam line heading towards the shore. We started running away. Suddenly, a giant wave hit the shore and swept us away just as we were about to reach the roadside" - Ho For Nam on the deaths of his wife and daughter

"I will accept it as fate if my family is no longer alive. The least I can do is to find their bodies and give them a proper burial" - Made Jakfar Abdullah worrying about the whereabouts of his family in Aceh

"All I managed to grab were Boon Huey's pants. My baby's hand was so tiny, she just slipped away from me .... And I thought my end was near too as the waves kept hitting the shore" - Chin King Foong on the death of her 11 month-old daughter

"Although a fisherman saved my husband, my son was not so fortunate" -
Cik Tom Abdullah on the death of her 15-year-old son, Ayub Mohamed


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