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Jewish World Review
Jan. 6, 2005
/ 25 Teves, 5765
Tsunami realities: Most in need are least likely to get help
I was awakened just after dawn by the person who had duty that morning telling me there had been an earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale in the Indian Ocean, and that a tidal wave had already hit some coastal areas. I was told that about over 1,000 people were reported dead.
Nature is nature and disasters are disasters. Death and untold suffering aside, such events rarely have geopolitical significance and therefore are not something we pay much attention to, except as human beings. But in conversations, it became clear to us that this case might be different.
An 8.9 earthquake is an extraordinary event. We knew that there had been a tidal wave. We also knew that first reports in major disasters normally underestimated casualties. The reason is simple. In a really bad disaster, the first thing to go down are communications. The areas with the most casualties are almost always the last to be located. If reports from areas where communications were up were already reporting over a thousand casualties, the toll had to be horrendous. Given the geography of the Indian Ocean basin, with its crowded, low-lying littorals, we suspected, but couldn't know, that there was a calamity in the making.
These calamites consist of two parts. First, there is the initial death toll. There is then the follow-on horror. Earthquakes, tidal waves, massive hurricanes, not only kill people. They isolate the areas they hit by taking down infrastructure that seems much more solid to people than they are to nature. Food warehouses, medical facilities and power stations are all damaged or destroyed in the first strike.
The destruction of these facilities is the second strike. A population that can survive only when that infrastructure is there can no longer survive. Life's sustenance has been destroyed or has become inaccessible. The injured begin dying immediately. Within a few days, hunger and disease begin killing still more.
It is relatively easy to get a reporter with a camera into the area. It is possible to get some supplies in with extreme effort. It is physically impossible to get the mass of material and expertise into the area in time to make much difference. You can save some, and the lucky few need to be saved, but most will live or die on their own.
The urge to provide aid is noble and necessary in the long run. It is illusory to believe that aid coming at intercontinental distances can possibly get to the areas affected in time to make a substantial immediate difference. The aid has to be gathered together in the donor countries, then moved to the stricken areas. Airlift is a nice thought, and it can save a few hundred people per flight assuming that the airport is intact, which is doubtful, since it is usually a large, flat area near the coast. But when hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake, the quantity of material needed can only be carried by ships.
But the ships dock in ports where the tidal wave struck and where damage to equipment was massive. Or they can dock hundreds of miles away from the stricken areas. Relief officials must then try to find enough trucks to carry the goods after the roads have been repaired. While this is going on, hundreds of thousands of people are waging horrifying struggles for their lives.
It takes weeks to get in enough supplies to make a difference. By then what is needed is the rebuilding of the lives of those who survived, and perhaps the burial of the dead. This is where foreign donors can make a difference. The first couple of weeks are in the hands of local inhabitants and what help unaffected areas nearby can manage to get in.
Before the extent of the damage was really known, one of my colleagues wondered wryly how long it would take someone to blame the tsunami on the Bush Administration. It seemed to me wry black humor under the circumstances. No one blamed Bush for the disaster, but he was very quickly attacked for not responding quickly enough.
There are lots of things Bush can be accused of reasonably, including failure to show a symbolic commitment. But the fact of the matter was that the situation was beyond even a superpower's ability to ameliorate and a few days either way really didn't matter.
Bush needs to be judged on what he does now in aiding rebuilding, not what he did or didn't do for the victims. The reality was that for most people, life-or-death fate would be played out long before any help could arrive. Some things are beyond human power, and far beyond politics.
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George Friedman is chairman of Strategic Forecasting, Inc., one of the world's leading global intelligence firms, providing clients with geopolitical analysis and industry and country forecasts to mitigate risk and identify opportunities. Stratfor's clients include Fortune 500 companies and major government. His latest book is "America's Secret War." (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
© 2005 TMS