Sunday, January 23, 2005

Of Miracles and Corruption: The Indian Ocean Tsunami

Thanks to brother Pathawi, who offered his editorial insights to refine this article.

The massive tsunami in the Indian Ocean has shaken the world in more than one way. The tremendous loss of human life is literally incomprehensible. It is difficult to come to terms with one death. Extend the grief to ten, the size of a family and some close relatives. Extend it to 175,000, and the imagination is stretched to a point where it throws in the towel. The number no longer registers and media desensitization kicks in.

In these moments of grieving and sadness, shimmers of light shine upon the afflicted and the homeless. The vagaries and pettiness of politics are discarded for a brief moment, and billions in food and aid money has at least averted deaths from starvation.

And from among the rubble, fantastic tales of survival and hope emerge. From children holding on to palm trees to old men lying under rubble for days to be rescued at the eleventh hour. Though it is difficult to find consolation from these stories despite the thousands dead, these tales, marred as they are with tragedy and gloom, offer hope. It is in the apparent randomness and selectivity of fate that veterans of war, and survivors of calamities in the face of insurmountable odds, become superstitious or attribute their survival to higher forces.

But rationalism, although inadequate on its own, aids a lot in gleaning insights into the prevailing human condition during times of disaster. Consider, for example, that although ancient structures such as statues of Buddhas in Sri Lanka and mosques in Aceh remain standing, many modern structures have been swept away. Some here will argue that although some ancient structures remain, many were indeed destroyed, and although some modern structures were razed, many do stand.

That may be true, but one must pose the question: surely no ancient structure can outlast a modern structure in technical proficiency, yet there are cases where the exception in devastation is a single mosque, standing in the midst of rubble and desolation. Something is amiss.

The religious will attribute it to divine origin, and say that God is angry, and though sparing His own houses, has sent down destruction upon the astray, to teach them a lesson. But what does it all mean?

The systematic blasting of coral reefs in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal did not mitigate in the least the tsunami’s fury. They were effectively dynamited through to allow large ships to pass and allow for the trade of scrap and clothes on which the region survives. Coral reefs, apart from being cradles of life far greater in number than the entire human race combined, have been known to alleviate the effects of tsunamis and tidal waves. The damage of this natural force was further compounded by the destruction of mangroves that used to line the coastlines, now cleared for residential areas bearing the people that so tragically perished.

What is more tragic is that Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii could not warn the countries nearest to the tsunami because bureaucracies had not yet established proper protocols for the dissemination of such information. It did, however, warn the Pacific Islands, where disaster warning systems were in place, but those regions were barely affected. Had it been a cyclone instead of a tsunami the protocols were established for Indian Ocean nations to be warned, and a warning would have been sent out. Solely because it was a tsunami, the lines were silent, and the absurdity of bureaucracy bloomed in all its glory that fateful day. If God is truly angry, perhaps we can’t quite blame Him.

The red-tape and corruption in these countries, apart from preventing warnings to come through, also causes structures to be built on flimsy foundations, not in line with proper specifications. Turkey became infamous for this, when in August of 1999 in Izmit, an earthquake killed 17,000 people. Had construction guidelines been followed, many lives would have been saved, but corrupt construction practices killed people in the thousands.

So when statues of Buddha or mosques and temples stay standing, perhaps their builders knew more about their land than we do. Perhaps they didn’t skim off the top in building materials to make a quick buck. And despite two millennia of progress, here we are, numb with grief, mourning the death of so many we can no longer comprehend the loss.

Finally, after the worst tsunami in recorded history (topped not even by the tsunami of 1400 BC that historical texts say killed 100,000), the United Nations is finally putting its foot down on the corrupt, graft-ridden, red tape-laden governments of the Indian Ocean region. A proper warning system should be up and running by June of 2006.

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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)