Is nature cruel?
The scenes on television of dead bodies, hungry people, and devastated settlements were disturbing. But for those of us who have at some time traveled to these now disaster-ridden areas, the news was all the more painful because we had seen, talked to, and shaken hands with people living and working in that part of the world, people like you and me, people who wanted to be happy, to be with their families, to work, to grow, to enjoy life. So the disaster has had a personal aspect for me.
But what we conceive as natural disasters are really only geological processes. For example, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions often occur along the boundaries of tectonic plates. The system of plate tectonics has been operating on the Earth for hundreds of millions of years, long before humans appeared. So any human settlement close to these boundaries is prone to encounter ground shaking and volcanic activity. These occurrences have nothing to do with race, nationality, religion, or other human features.
There are two beneficial implications to a naturalistic explanation of tragedies like this. The first is that it solves the human-generated question of why a god or gods, if they are benevolent, should kill humans en masse by a natural disaster. The second is that it shifts attention to the question of how we humans can mitigate such natural disasters. In short, instead of putting blame on gods, we need to understand natural phenomena and be prepared as much as we can against their undesirable effects.
But beliefs that natural disasters are "acts of God" or direct products of human misbehavior are still alive in various forms and in various religions. For example, after the Asian tsunami there was a news story about a man whose family had survived and who commented that they did so because they had good karma while those who died or were injured had bad karma! In truth, if there is any human cause-and-effect connection with this tragedy, it can only relate to what the governments, people, and international agencies did and didn't do in advance and afterwards toward reducing the potential damage.
Disaster, you see, is a human-relative notion. When we are hurt because of a natural phenomenon we call it a disaster; otherwise we don't even care. Perhaps only a few readers of this magazine know that two days before the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami there was a huge earthquake with a magnitude of 8.1 on the Richter scale off Macquire Island near New Zealand. That ocean-floor quake was felt throughout Australia and New Zealand but no one was hurt. Did anyone relate that earthquake to bad karma? No. Did they read the book of Job to gain comfort? No. The majority of the world's people, regardless of religion, didn't even know about it because nobody was hurt. A pleasant seashore breeze and a disastrous hurricane are equally natural. We simply need to awaken ourselves to this fact and, instead of blaming supernatural beings or forces, learn to prepare for and live with natural events.
Currently science and technology are unable to predict exactly when an earthquake will hit a particular area. And we can't prevent tsunamis from occurring. So it was unlikely that geologists could have predicted the Indian Ocean earthquake. And no authority could have stopped the tsunami waves. But we do know that the Indonesian region is part of an active earthquake-volcanic belt. As a geologist I was stunned to learn about the lack of a tsunami detecting and warning system in the Indian Ocean. This wasn't the first time people in that part of the world had suffered from such an event. On August 27, 1883, a large volcanic eruption literally annihilated the island of Krakatoa in Indonesia. The tsunami that followed killed 36,000 people. In the 1990s eleven tsunami events killed some 4,337 people around the world, of which one third (four tsunamis killing 1,341 people) occurred in Indonesia.
Although tsunami waves travel in the open ocean as fast as jet planes, the time gap between an ocean floor earthquake and the subsequent waves striking islands and coasts hundreds of miles away may provide a window of opportunity for people to evacuate. This requires a sophisticated detection and warning system as it exists in the Pacific Ocean, a place that also has active tectonic plates and frequent tsunamis.
It was the 1946 Aleutian Islands earthquake and tsunami that struck Hawaii and killed more than 150 people that led to the establishment in Honolulu of the Pacific Tsunami Warning System in 1949. The Good Friday (March 28) 1964 Alaska earthquake and tsunami gave rise to the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska, in 1967. These centers utilize a sophisticated device for providing detection and warning called DART (Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis). It consists of a pressure sensor placed on the ocean floor and a surface buoy to send the readings to satellites, which then relay them to tsunami warning centers. Recently the United Nations announced that a tsunami warning system will be put in place in the Indian Ocean by the end of 2005.
Do such investments in science and technology pay off? Yes they do. Japan and Indonesia provide telling examples. Japan has one of the most advanced tsunami warning and preparation systems in the world. In the twentieth century only about 15 percent of the 150 tsunamis that hit that country resulted in damages or casualties. During the same period in Indonesia, however, more than 50 percent of the thirty-four tsunamis that struck the country were damaging or fatal.
Modern Japan's example provides a good track record if we consider the history of devastating tsunamis in pre-modern Japan. Tsunami ("harbor wave") is a Japanese word and some of the highest casualty tsunamis are found in Japanese history. The 1498 tsunami killed 30,000 people and the 1896 tsunami killed 26,000. Since the end of World War II and the rapid development of Japan, however, only one Japanese tsunami has had a death toll exceeding 2,000.
One step that reduces such deadly effects in tsunami-prone regions is the planting of a belt of trees along the coast. This acts a barrier against waves and inundation. Far from carrying out reforestation plans of this nature, however, people in many at-risk areas around the world have been destroying mangroves and coral reefs.
But application of preventive science and technology is only part of the story. The other is related to emergency rescue and relief efforts after a natural disaster has struck. Despite our medical science, advancements in transportation and telecommunications, internationalized economies, and ideas of a "global village," we humans are far from functioning as an organized body or a global brain when large-scale responses are called for. "Tribalistic" thinking on various scales and in various forms (most notably in nation states) has hindered global organization, coordination, and cooperation. That's why the loss of life due to shortages of food, drinking water, medicine, and other necessities in the aftermath of a calamity is often as great as the direct death and destruction from the disaster itself. We need to rethink how the world functions and what it means to be a human first and anything else second.
Tsunamis and other natural events are taking place now as they have in the past. There is no statistical evidence to support the idea that their number has increased in our time. But we can better record and report them now.
Nonetheless, the rapid growth of the world's population, the concentration of economic activities in cities prone to natural disasters, and the internationalized nature of the world economy have made us more vulnerable. So we will need to take all that into account as well.
To sum up, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, and famines aren't deliberate occurrences aimed at hurting humans; they are simply part of the way the Earth functions. Instead of throwing up our hands and saying these events are acts of God to punish us or are even evidence that there is no benevolent god, we would do better to rethink our relationship with the planet. The world can never be 100 percent safe from natural disasters, to be sure, but humanity can mitigate natural hazards with better science and technology, with better planning and preparedness, and with more compassion and cooperation. The key word for a reasonable perception of our place in nature isn't "natural disaster," then, but "human vulnerability." After the recent Asian tsunami, many governments and millions of people around the world have generously provided support for the victims. But we now need to extend this generosity and attention to long-term plans. We need to strengthen global efforts to reduce natural hazards and increase global cooperation to address them when they occur. If governments spend some of their military budgets toward these ends, our world will become significantly safer.
Rasoul Sorkhabi holds an M.Sc. and a Ph.D. in geology. He has worked extensively in Asia and is currently a research professor at the Energy and Geoscience Institute, University of Utah, Salt Lake City. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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|Title Annotation:||Up front: news and opinion from independent minds|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2005|
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