Nepali Times
Southasia Beat
Other disasters


It is a civilisational event when tragedy strikes on such a massive scale as it did this week. A time to tarry and consider the origins and frailty of all life. There are those who succumb, and a larger majority that is saved. When the giant tsumanis radiated out from the sea floor early on Sunday morning, parts of the Malay Peninsula not shielded by the northern tip of Sumatra suffered terrible fate.

But nature's real wrath was reserved for Southasia's poor ocean-front dwellers as the wall of water charged across the Indian Ocean to engulf the eastern coast of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. The tens of thousands who died were fisherfolk, as the ocean that provided their livelihood became their doom. Tourists and urban dwellers on morning walks were not spared either.

If you were not protected by distance or by an intervening landmass, there was little to be done. The angle of India's east coast from Kanyakumari to West Bengal was pre-designed to take the brunt of the tidal waves travelling west and northwest. The Arabian Sea was protected by the subcontinental mass.

Southasia is no stranger to disasters both natural and manmade. More and more people are vulnerable because more of them live along dangerous coastlines or river banks. More die here for any event than elsewhere. Droughts are a scourge even when granaries are full. Floods bring routine catastrophe to the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta, particularly if the two great rivers peak simultaneously half way through the monsoon season.
Cyclones hit the east coast of India with regularity and thousands die every time they tear at Orissa or Andhra. After past disasters, Bangladesh has now developed an efficient cyclone early warning system that saves lives. A tsunami-warning system could have saved lives across Asia last Sunday. Bangladesh proves it can work.

When the sea decides to rise up in a tsumani, a coastline which has functioned with clockwork and controlled predictability for centuries suddenly goes beserk. There is no fighting the wall of water that shreds the shoreline and grabs at living things.

When it comes to disasters that come up from the deep, one can only pick up the pieces and care for survivors. What Southasians have to worry about and can do something about are the manmade disasters we create. Even amidst this tragedy we must remember that the miseries created by man are worse. Nature, actually, is kinder.

Global warming created by emissions of the affluent is now almost certainly scientifically proven and receding Himalayan glaciers are a reality. Maldives, as we were tragically reminded this week, is most prone to rising sea levels. With global warming, the ocean will invade the Bangla delta, uprooting tens of millions. Where will they go?
Modern governments are prone to think up grandiose projects. There are the technocrats and politicians amongst us who have not learned from river diversions that led to the drying up of the Aral Sea, the biggest ecological disaster of our time. And yet, India's 'visionary' politicians and technocrats push a River Linking Project.

The 'Asian brown cloud' hovers over our hemisphere, a product of industrialisation that prevents the sun from warming the land. The Indus and Ganga plains are suffering increased winter fog that stretches from Ultan to Guwahati. Embankments, canals, irrigation and waterlogging seem to be the culprits. Elsewhere, we are depleting ground water, polluting rivers, spreading pesticide and taking water off rivers so people downstream are left in despair.

Traumatised as we are by nature's wrath this week, we need to try to comprehend the immensity of the devastation that humans unleash. Since we cannot teach nature to behave, it is best to see how humans should. In manmade disasters, the drama is missing, the disaster creeps in and the devastation is many times worse.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)