Fri, Dec 31, 2004 - Page 9 News List

A terrible warning not to do nothing

By David Aaronovitch  /  THE GUARDIAN

ILLUSTRATION MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

It all just gets worse. Reports from places you have barely heard of, where hundreds of thousands of people eked out livings beside the ocean, now tell of scores of thousands of dead. All of a sudden, in the space between bank holidays, we have witnessed the greatest natural disaster of our lifetime.

What are we learning? Well, there's the prosaic manner of the catastrophe. The waves weren't 30m high and high buildings weren't toppled -- instead the water, unaccompanied by momentous music, just kept going when it should have stopped. For once the language of the resulting devastation and chaos -- so absurdly over-applied most of the time -- was appropriate. When eye-witnesses used the word "literally" it was because they had seen the exact things they were describing.

Beyond the gradually revealed facts, the narratives also are gradually developing.

Why worry -- some ask -- about global warming, which is only a speculative disaster, when we have the real thing to cope with? Others chorus that -- as ever -- it's the poor wot gets the flooding, and ain't it all a bleeding shame? Or, why spend money on Iraq when it could be better devoted to relieving tsunami victims in the Indian Ocean? In fact, why worry at all, when natural forces so clearly have dominion still over man?

The Indian Ocean earthquake was the biggest such event since the one that shook Alaska in 1964, creating tsunamis that caused some destruction on the Californian coast. But its destructive impact has been greater than any quake since -- 96 years ago yesterday -- a tremor, with its epicenter in the Straits of Messina, killed between 80,000-100,000 people on Sicily and in Reggio-Calabria. The catholic poet Alice Meynell wrote a poem entitled Messina 1908 lamenting to the Lord that, "Thou hast crushed Thy tender ones, o'er-thrown/ Thy strong, Thy fair ..." before attributing the subsequent relief effort ("Thy ships by sea, Thy trains by land") to the tenderness of the same deity.

The authorities, whether animated by God or other considerations, rebuilt Messina so that next time many fewer would die. This is the impulse which, in the US -- shaken as it is by floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanoes -- has led to a determination to conquer the effects of natural disaster.

The same should be true of the Indian Ocean region. Though it hasn't, in recent history, experienced as many tsunamis as the Pacific region, seismic and volcanic activity has always made an event like this week's entirely feasible. Two of the greatest eruptions in recorded history -- Mount Tambora in 1815 and Krakatoa in 1883 -- happened there. But, as we all now know, there isn't an early warning system that could have helped save many lives in the countries furthest away from the quake epicenter.

The absence of such a system is not just a function of regional poverty, nor even (as a Today program presenter somewhat bizarrely appeared to suggest) the fault of the secretary general of the Commonwealth. It is much more a function of risk assessment and distant timescale. There wasn't that much of a risk and it wasn't likely to happen soon.

Proof that this absence of urgency can be quite widespread is furnished by the apparent certainty that one day the volcano on the island of La Palma in the Canaries will erupt, triggering a rock-fall of several hundred billion tonnes and a tsunami that will take out New York. Writing in the New York Times yesterday the author Dennis Smith used the occasion of the Indian Ocean disaster to argue that now was the time to reduce the La Palma mountain in size, "to lessen the impact should it ever slide into Atlantic." "But, who," Smith asked, "will pay for such a huge reduction of a landmass?" Hmm. What country is New York in?

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