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The tsunami is significant, but let's keep it in perspective

By Peter Curson - posted Monday, 17 January 2005


Recently the media has been full of stories of the tsunami being the greatest natural disaster of recent decades and how the toll of life exceeds all other disasters. What short historical memories we have. In the context of disasters the tsunami has been significant but relatively small fry. The drought in India between 1965 and 1967 probably killed more than 1.5 million people, the Bangladesh cyclone of 1970 at least 300,000, while the Chinese famine of 1958-61, possibly the greatest disaster of the 20th century, is estimated to have killed at least 25 million people as well as being responsible for the loss of 30 million births.

Between 1960 and 2004 natural disasters probably affected about 800 million people, killing perhaps 100 million. Epidemics of infectious disease alone probably affected 500 million people and killed at least 75 million.

It also seems part of human nature to be more moved by a sudden extreme event and in the case of disasters, by ones that are concentrated in time and space, rather than by slow disasters like AIDS that may progress inexorably over many years. With disasters it is clear that we are more moved by the sudden tempest than we are by the gentle rain.

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Today there are 300 deaths every hour from AIDS and so far the disease has probably killed 25 million people and a further 40 million are said to be living with the disease. Undoubtedly it represents one of the greatest crises to affect the human population, but because it is a slow viral disease spread over time and space, we tend to put it on the backburner.

And perhaps with AIDS as with the current tsunami there is a slight hint of ethnocentrism in our reaction. AIDS has moved on to largely affect the heterosexual population of the developing world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, while the recent tsunami affected a number of Europeans. Had it not, would our reaction have been different? One would like to think not, but the history of Western reaction to natural disasters over the past century suggests that there is a rank ordering of reaction (and aid) based on the number of Americans or Europeans who are affected. Cynically one might argue that in the West’s perception, one American or one Australian killed evokes more reaction in the Western media and with governments than 50,000 Indonesian or Indian deaths.

Much has also been made of the tsunami being a “natural” disaster beyond our foresight or control. The “Act of God”, so beloved by insurance brokers and some churchmen, is clearly only one element of this disaster The factor of paramount importance is people and their vulnerability. In reality, this was a “social” disaster not a “natural” one. The tsunami, like all disasters occurred at the interface of an extreme natural event and human vulnerability. Extreme physical events are not by nature malevolent or malign to human populations. Rather it is people who by the nature of their philosophies, attitudes and behaviour that may make them so.

There is little doubt that the poverty, the disadvantage and the deprivation of many people in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India caused this disaster, not the tidal wave that swept away villages. Almost all these people lacked the physical and social hazard defences so common in the developed world. Many were “forced” to live in hazardous locations, in frail and dilapidated houses, and in societies which do not possess the resources or the will to provide cheap, accessible and safe housing for many of their inhabitants.

The globalisation of tourism and travel has added another dimension. Most tourist resorts are small parasitic oases of Western development set within a surrounding sea of poverty and disadvantage. More, they have become magnets of attraction for many rural-urban migrants who cluster in temporary housing nearby.

Over the last few decades there has been an increase in the frequency of large-scale disasters, particularly in the developing world. To me there is little evidence that the biophysical environment is responsible for the human devastation that often results. Indeed, it would seem that the “poor” are bound to become more vulnerable to such disasters. The cycle of poverty that operates in many developing countries simply sees the poor become poorer and the rich, richer. The poorer people get, the less reserves they have to confront natural disasters, the flimsier becomes their housing, the more vulnerable it becomes to floods, storms, earthquakes and tsunamis, the poorer their nutritional status the less likely they are to resist the extra stress of disasters and the infectious disease that often follows.

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Arguably, globalisation has intensified this process by “forcing” many into more vulnerable social and economic positions which in turn has seen many look for sources of livelihood in areas where security is less and potential hazard more severe. It is a sad fact that the poor are not inheriting the earth, but rather being consumed by it.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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