Global Trends by
Monday 3 January
Tragic tales and urgent tasks from the Tsunami disaster
What a tragic way to start
a new year. The tsunami that swept Asian countries has left behind devastation
of villages and cities, millions of stories of tragic loss and heroic
actions, urgent tasks of relief and reconstruction, and lessons for the
It must be the worst way for
an old year to pass away, and a new year to come onto the world.
The tsunamis that hit Asia
and even a few countries in Africa on 26 December were so unexpected and
so shocking in its devastating impact.
In these days of satellite
television and instant news reports, many of us could witness the tragedy
as it unfolded and as estimates of the death toll climbed from 20,000
to 150,000 and approached 200,000.
The macro and micro dimensions
of the horror are still sinking in. The TV images of devastated communities
and satellite pictures of whole cities before and after the high waves
struck show us the huge dimensions of the destruction.
But even more heart rending
are the personal stories of the tragedy. Etched in the collective memory
of Malaysians will be the pain and suffering of people like Zulkifli Mohd
Nor, who was shown sobbing on TV news after he lost five of his young
children as they were swept away at Penang’s Pasir Panjang beach.
His family, like any other
Malaysian family could have done on that sunny day, had decided to go
to the beach so the children could take another swim before the school
holidays ended. Zulkifli managed to save his wife and their year-old
daughter but lost the other five.
Who could not have been affected
by the story and photograph of the weeping seven year old Jessica Lim
in last Friday’s Star. She called out “Mama” repeatedly as the
coffins of her mother Sue Siew Keong and her husband Lim Woo-Jeong were
placed at a cremation chamber in Kuala Lumpur.
Jessica, her sister and their
parents were at Emerald Cave near Phuket when the tsunami struck. Sue
sacrificed her life to save her two daughters. As Lim was swept away,
she held on to the two girls and then released them to another son who
was standing on higher ground. In doing so, Sue herself was taken away
by the raging waters.
A heart-warming story that
any parent can relate to, of the natural instinct to save the children,
even at the expense of one’s own life. And an utterly tragic yet inspiring
knowledge that the saved children will always live with, not only that
the parents died, but that their mother died so that they the children
could live on.
From Sri Lanka comes another
tale, that of a young man whose college sweetheart was killed with 800
others when a train was slammed by a 30-foot wall of water. "Is
this the fate that we had planned for?" cried the young man. "My
darling, you were the only hope for me."
In India, a woman survived
when the waves took her house and ten family members away. “If it had
happened a few moments earlier, I too would have been in the house,” on
TV news. “If only I had also died with everyone else.”
If these were among the saddest
stories, perhaps the most terrifying scenes were from the western coastal
areas of Sumatra, near the earthquake’s epicenter. The pictures from
the capital, Banda Aceh, were bad enough.
Even more devastating was the
video footage of more remote towns such as Meulaboh (population 40,000)
and Lhohga (population 7,000). It is feared most of the inhabitants may
have been died, and almost all the houses and buildings wiped out.
It took many days before the
situation in these coastal towns could be ascertained and even after a
week, aid had not reached the survivors there. It is the desolate silence
from these isolated areas that is most frightening.
The lack of information and
communication in the affected countries in the hours before and after
the tsunami has been highlighted as a major flaw.
This inadequacy was most evident
in Indonesia. In the first day after the tsunami struck, the official
estimates for the death toll in Indonesia had been put at only a few thousands.
Only many days later were the
figures adjusted to 80,000. According to one estimate the Indonesian
death toll could eventually be a few hundred thousands.
In Malaysia, news of what had
happened in Penang and Kedah was hardly available throughout the day.
Only by the time of the 8.00pm TV news was some information provided,
and even then it was scanty.
The lack of warnings of the
impending tsunami was explained in Thailand along the lines that tsunamis
have rarely happened and the authorities were caught unawares. This same
explanation would apply across the region.
However, The Nation,
a Bangkok-based newspaper, cited a more frank explanation by a weather
bureau official. “Since we haven’t had a tsunami for decades, we were
reluctant to issue a warning.
“Six years earlier the weather
bureau director issued a tsunami warning for Phuket, but one never materialized.
Many people there condemned him for a prediction that they claimed could
scare off tourists. This outcry banned him from visiting Phuket again.
We had this very bad memory in mind when we were considering whether or
not to issue a warning.”
The Nation itself commented
that “it was out of fear of being subjected to social and political pressure
that the government agencies concerned decided to resort to negligence
of duty, to expose hundreds of thousands of people to grave danger, in
order to protect their own social status.”
Thus, one key lesson from the
tsunami disaster is that the political leaders should send clear signals
to the government officials that if there is clear danger to the lives,
safety and heath of people, that the dangers should be made known, and
a warning system be set up and put into effect.
In the past, there had also
been the suspicion in some Asian countries that the fear of getting a
bad reputation (especially with tourists) could hinder the announcement
of outbreaks (and the taking of measures to control) diseases such as
SARS and avian flu.
Failure or slowness to act
in the hope that tourism will not be affected is counter-productive because
the countries concerned will in the end get a bad reputation anyway when
the facts are revealed.
It is better to act fast, for
the interests of citizens, and in the process earn a good international
image for honesty and effective responses.
The immediate needs in the
tsunami-struck countries are clear: getting food, water, shelter to the
victims. The United Nations and aid agencies are now trying to get their
act together, and the funds for aid are rising, though still far from
Debt relief, or at least a
moratorium for debt repayment, should be also provided to the affected
countries, as has been proposed by some NGOs and even some western governments.
Reconstruction of the affected
regions will also be a massive task that should soon get underway.
And, of course, warning systems
at regional and national levels, to have countries better prepared for
future tsunamis and other natural disasters, are definitely needed. Tied
to these should be emergency systems for evacuation, rescue and relief.
As 2005 dawns upon us, it is
difficult to focus on other issues when the aftermath and aftershocks
of the 26 December earthquake and tsunami are still so much with us.
Let’s hope that out of this
tragic disaster will come a greater sense of our common humanity, better
international cooperation among countries and people, and a deeper appreciation
of the need to take Nature and the environment into account.
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