Sat, Dec 27, 2008 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: No such thing as a local disaster

The Sydney Morning Herald yesterday reported that Indonesia and Australia are cooperating at the highest levels in preparation for “mega-disasters” with a view to developing policies of preventive action and response.

This is splendid news, and a welcome sign of cooperation in a region frequently beset by diplomatic tension and suspicion.

These inevitable catastrophes will affect not only the country or countries where they occur, but also entire regions and the interconnected economies they sustain.

One of the report’s authors warned that population growth and denser habitation of fragile areas — which would have been avoided or sparsely populated in previous centuries — mean that natural disasters could wreak terrible losses.

Among the most vulnerable locations were said to be “mega-cities in the Himalayan belt, China, Indonesia and the Philippines [which are] prime candidates for earthquakes that could cause more than a million deaths.”

This research suggests that the greater the magnitude of a natural disaster, the greater the damage that can be felt by neighboring countries as “interaction of climate change, urbanisation, poor land use planning and tension about access to resources” heightens humanitarian crises.

A disaster at a time of economic crisis would result in even worse consequences, heightening social unrest in affected areas as victims struggle to recover and neighbors hesitate to donate from shrinking bank accounts.

Taiwan is one of the world’s most seismically active countries, but more rigorous building codes mean that the most severe of earthquakes and typhoons take far fewer lives than events of similar magnitude in countries like Pakistan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Though this sense of security has the tendency to promote parochialism, Taiwanese should not ignore the warning signs of growing social, economic and environmental tensions in neighboring states — and need to be better informed at civic and government policy levels to establish and monitor risk. The Philippines is a case in point, though China is slowly moving in a direction that suggests economic growth will not be able to stave off widespread social upheaval and conflict.

In China’s case, this week’s news that a rigged court denied compensation and accountability to parents of children who died in poorly built classrooms during the Sichuan earthquake suggests that the country has a long way to go before it can reach some level of sobriety on such long-term challenges.

The good news is that Taiwan has the potential to play a very positive role in helping China to take a step toward peaceful and constructive integration with its neighbors. At the moment, this is being simplistically interpreted as a chance for some to get rich as the Chinese market expands and for Taiwan to deny its constructive characteristics in the process.

The longer view, however, suggests that wealth is a regional, if not global, issue, and that if China persists in being a social, political and environmental weak link, then it will end up dragging everyone down with it.

In the end, with natural disasters, as with economic fidelity, we are all in it together.

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