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The tsunami - the real scandal
and some lessons


PressInfo # 207

 January 16, 2005


Dietrich Fischer, TFF Associate

Professor, dr., Academic Director European University Center for Peace Studies (EPU)


The hard facts of the scandal

Here is an article by TFF Associate Michel Chossudovsky that shows that "Washington was aware that a deadly tidal wave was building up in the Indian Ocean."

It forms an important part of Richard Norton-Taylor's article here in The Guardian. There is also this news report by MSNBC, Tsunami spares U.S. base in Diego Garcia. And, finally, read Eric Wadell's Why weren't they warned?

These reports confirm that the US military base on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean received a warning of the impending tsunami, but civilians did not. As we know now, the warning was not passed on.

This is a crime of unprecedented proportions and should be exposed.*

Diego Garcia, as a US Navy Base, is a member of the PACIFIC tsunami warning system, even though it is located in the Indian Ocean. Its members were informed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Colorado that there is a a tsunami in the Indian ocean, but that there is no danger in the Pacific. (There is a 56 minute video by John Pilger about Diego Garcia, Stealing a Nation. The island has been central in the military operations against Afghanistan and Iraq).

This exposes the military's justification of itself as "protecting lives" as a sham. Someone who shoots a policeman receives the death penalty in the United States. But if someone bears responsibility for a large portion of the estimated 200,000 who died in the tsunami by withholding life-saving information from those who need it, that is not now considered a crime, even though it is far more serious.

Someone who lost a relative or friend in the tsunami ought to file a lawsuit against those who knew but failed to inform the people in danger, including the commander of the military base in Diego Garcia, and perhaps the Pentagon.

There is little chance that they could win the case, but it would get a lot of publicity, and help invigorate the debate about the role of the military in our world.

The following column argues that even without an official tsunami warning system in place in the Indian ocean, a warning could have been given in time to many of those who were affected.

* Please see also a journalism professors question on Independent Journalists Online.



The lessons from the tsunami

Syndicated by the Inter-Press Service, 4. January 2005

In an interview on CNN on 2. January, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Colorado was asked the question on everyone's mind: Why was no warning issued to the countries that were hit by a tsunami after NOAA detected the strong earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra on 26. December? He responded that first of all, there was no warning system in place, there was nobody in those countries to receive the message. Second, NOAA did not have a precise model of the tsunami and could not have known how many need to evacuate.

It does not take an expensive warning system to suspect that this magnitude 9 earthquake under the sea might be followed by a tsunami, and that thousands of people's lives along the densely populated coast lines facing the epicenter could be in danger. A magnitude 8.3 earthquake in Lituya Bay off the Alaskan coast in 1958 generated a wave sweeping up to 516 meters altitude, washing trees off mountain slopes, fortunately in an unpopulated area. True, not every earthquake under the ocean generates a tsunami, but the precautionary principle tells us to prepare for the worst in case of uncertainty.

Even if the job description of the scientists who detected the earthquake did not include warning those whose lives were in danger, it was their moral responsibility to do so. They may not have had phone numbers of government agencies in charge in the affected countries. But if they had informed anyone who could pass on the warning, even at night, including friends and relatives, they may have been able to reach some people in the affected areas who could have forwarded the information to others. If someone called ten others, and those in turn each called ten more, and so on, a billion people could be reached in principle in only nine steps. Even if some fail to pass on the warning, others will.

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People without telephone can be warned by neighbors. Radio broadcasts and internet messages will also be picked up by some, who can inform others in person and by phone. Helicopters could have beamed warnings by megaphone along the endangered shorelines.

Why nothing of that sort was done is incomprehensible.

The US State Department could have contacted its foreign embassies in the region, and governments directly. Some governments did have information, but failed to act on it, fearing its adverse effect on tourism. It took the tsunami 3 hours and 52 minutes to reach Sri Lanka, less for Thailand, but plenty of time for a warning. There is enough blame to be shared.

It is not necessary to know precisely what areas are in danger and need to be evacuated. What mistake is more serious: going to higher ground when in retrospect it may turn out unnecessary, or to stay and drown?

For the people on the West Coast of Sumatra, time for a warning was short, only about 20 minutes for Banda Aceh, one of the most affected areas. Moreover, some phone lines were destroyed. But people should have been educated that strong earthquakes are often followed by destructive waves. Those who were not seriously injured by the quake itself could have reached safer ground.

Ignorance can kill, and education can save lives. A good example is oral rehydration. A table spoon of sugar and a tea spoon of salt mixed with a liter of boiled water given teaspoon by teaspoon to victims of acute diarrhea from cholera or typhus can save them from death by dehydration. Before that simple therapy was widely known, 30-40 percent of cholera patients used to die. In the 1991 cholera epidemic in Peru, where people knew that therapy, less than 1 percent of the infected people died.

It is welcome that many governments and individuals have made available over $1 billion for the rescue effort. But that still represents only 1/10 of 1 percent of the world's annual military budget. Much more will be needed, and can be made available before more lives are lost to thirst, hunger, injuries and disease.

In this enormous tsunami disaster, over 155,000 people are already known to have died, tens of thousands are missing, and many more could die from diseases caused by contaminated drinking water. This immense suffering, which has been covered widely by the media, has for once vividly shown the magnitude of the structural violence that goes on unreported: an estimated 125,000 people per day, or 45 million per year, mostly children and the elderly, die needlessly from hunger and preventable diseases in our world of plenty. What consumers in the West spend for icecream, cosmetics and pet food would suffice to cover adequate nutrition and health care for all the people in the world who now lack it!

Let us redouble our efforts to end this horrible injustice.


Dietrich Fischer <> is Academic Director of European University Center for Peace Studies in Stadtschlaining, Austria, and Co-director of TRANSCEND, a peace and development network.


© TFF and the author 2005



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