January 2005   

Indian children killed by tsunami

Mother cries near bodies of her children, killed when giant waves hit Nagappattinam,
in southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. They did not have to die. 
(Photo: Gautam Singh/AP)

The media keeps reiterating that there is no history of tsunamis in the Indian Ocean and so the deadly waves could not have been predicted. This is self-serving nonsense. Dr. Tad Murty, vice president of the Tsunami Society who is affiliated with the Unviersity of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Manitoba (Canada), told the Calgary Sun (28 December 2004) that with 25 minutes to four hours warning time, it was possible to save the victims: “Once again, because of indifference and corruption thousands of innocent people have died needlessly.” Moreover, barely three months ago, AusGeo (September 2004), an Australian government publication, ran a lead article, noting that “There is an international tsunami warning system for the Pacific Ocean, but none for the Indian Ocean.” The article pinpointed the danger of a massive earthquake that could generate a tsunami in precisely the area where it occurred, the northwestern sector of the Sunda Trench off Sumatra. They even did tsunami modeling based on the 1833 Sumatra earthquake which may have been a 9.2 on the Richter scale. The modelling corresponds exactly to what happened three months later.

The AusGeo article was titled “Small threat, but WARNING SOUNDED for tsunami research.” Why a “small” threat? Because in the numerical simulation by Geoscience Australia, “most of the tsunami energy radiates out into the Indian Ocean and not toward Australia”! This is the same bureaucratic-chauvinist outlook that led the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to excuse its initial “no threat” alert with the CYA (cover your ass) statement that “there was no threat of a tsunami to Hawaii, the West Coast of North America or to other coasts in the Pacific Basin – the U.S. area of responsibility” (noaanews, 26 December 2004). No danger to California, no danger to Western Australia, only to a region populated by millions of poor people jammed against the sea? Only a “small threat,” then, that’s not in their “area of responsibility.” Could there be a more devastating admission of national narrowness and imperialist arrogance, or a more powerful argument for international socialist planning?

Even more direct was the warning of the former chief meteorologist of Thailand:

“Seven years ago, Smith Dharmasaroja shook Thailand with a bold and frightening prediction.
“‘I reaffirm that a tsunami is going to occur for sure,’ said Mr. Smith, a government official who had once been the nation’s chief meteorologist.
“His warning, made first in a speech and picked up by newspapers in the summer of 1998, quickly spread throughout the country, setting off panic – and outrage….
“Government officials, fearful of a washed-up tourist season, branded Mr. Smith a dangerous man with a screw loose. Authorities on the resort island of Phuket fastened loudspeakers to pickup trucks to broadcast a mollifying message to beachgoers – and warned Mr. Smith not to come to town.”
Wall Street Journal, 10 January

Mr. Smith studied tsunamis in the Pacific Ocean and noted that every one had begun with an earthquake registering at least 7.4 on the Richter scale. The only place this was likely to occur near Thailand was the geological fault along the Sunda Trench off Sumatra, and he concluded that this would place the beach resort of Phuket directly in a tsunami’s path. “If they had just listened,” the meteorologist lamented. On the morning of December 26, after reports of the earthquake but before the waves hit Phuket, Mr. Smith tried to reach the Thai meteorological department, but he was unsuccessful.

Map by Farhana Hossain and Laris Karklis, The Washington Post; Brian Cordyack, Nelson Hsu and Alyson Hurt, washingtonpost.com

But in fact, the Thai meteorological department knew of the earthquake and decided not to issue a warning, out of concern for the effect on the tourist trade. An article by Pravit Rojanaphruk in the Bangkok daily The Nation (28 December) reports that shortly after the quake, department officials convened an emergency meeting. A tsunami had not hit Thailand in 300 years, they reasoned. But, a source told the newspaper, “The very important factor in making the decision was that it’s high [tourist] season and hotel rooms were nearly 100-per-cent full. If we issued a warning, which would have led to evacuation [and if nothing happened], what would happen then? Business would be instantaneously affected. It would be beyond the Meteorological Department’s ability to handle. We could go under, if [the tsunami] didn’t come.” “Precisely at 9 am that Sunday, waves as high as 3 to 10 metres hit the main southern coastal provinces,” The Nation added. More than merely a case of criminal negligence, we see here how the logic of capitalist economics snuffs out thousands of lives.

The bottom line is that any truly international scientific effort to stem the damage caused by maritime and seismological events would have long ago established warning systems in the Indian Ocean. Punishing cyclones and monsoon storms are a regular occurrence as are the deaths of thousands of Bangladeshis in the periodic flooding of the lowland areas along the Bay of Bengal. The entire Pacific Basin is circled by a “ring of fire” which includes more than four-fifths of the major active volcanoes in the world. These volcanoes are located along the edges of continents, island chains or underwater mountain ranges where the dozen large plates that make up the earth’s surface abut. According to the plate-tectonics theory which has been widely accepted since the 1970s, most earthquakes (and many volcanic eruptions) occur at the outer edges of these plates. The Sunda trench is at the extreme western edge of this “ring of fire,” where the so-called India Plate “subducts” (goes under) the Burma Plate. Along the west coast of Sumatra is a long string of three dozen volcanoes located to the east of the Sunda Trench.

There are different kinds of earthquakes, and not all produce tsunamis. Where the plates collide laterally (along so-called strike-slip faults), as along the West Coast of the United States, except for the Cascadian fault,  the effects are mostly localized. The largest tsunamis generally occur as a result of thrust earthquakes in subduction zones, where one plate slips under another, thus displacing upwards massive quantities of rock and water. In the recent megathrust earthquake off northern Sumatra, the upward shift was estimated at 15-20 meters (50-65 feet) and it extended over an unusually long arc of 1,200 kilometers (750 miles). The initial quake was followed by almost 70 aftershocks and the eruption of a mud volcano in the Andaman Islands to the north. The Sumatra earthquake came just three days after another major quake (8.1 on the Richter scale) in an uninhabited area north of Macquarie Island, at the opposite end of the Indoaustralian plate, which is unusual as such major quakes occur on the average of one a year. The Sumatra quake also came exactly one year (to the hour) after the deadly earthquake in Bam, Iran, that killed some 30,000 people.

Sumatra Subduction Zone
Graphic by University of North Dakota/Volcano World

Various conspiracy buffs have circulated elaborate theories about how the Sumatra quake could have been part of a diabolical plot set off by mad scientists using the U.S. HAARP (High Altitude Active Aural Research Program) technology being developed as part of the Reagan-Bush Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or “Star Wars”) in order to seize Aceh oil/gas as part of the rescue. (Of course, the U.S. oil giant Exxon-Mobile already controls the Aceh gas fields.) Going even farther afield, they relate this to the four unusually strong Caribbean hurricanes last fall and the recent pounding storms on the U.S. West Coast. Putting aside such conspiracy mongering, and leaving open whether there are some causal relations among recent seismic activity or just coincidence, the fact is (as the Thai meteorologist and Geoscience Australia both warned) that the area off Sumatra was a logical place for a major earthquake producing a huge tsunami to take place. It is a geologically young area with lots of volcanic activity, which in the past had unleashed killer waves. In addition to the 1833 quake/tsunami modeled by the Australian scientists, there was the famous Krakatoa volcano eruption of 1883 which was recently chronicled by Simon Winchester in his book Krakatoa. The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883 (HarperCollins, 2003). This unleashed giant waves up to 40 meters high, killing 36,000 people in the coastal towns and villages of the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra.

As for the measures that could have been and should have been undertaken long ago, the placement of wave sensors on ocean buoys in the Indian Ocean would have been simple. The cost (at $250,000 each) is minuscule when compared to the vast amounts U.S. imperialism spends on high tech military equipment – but, of course, such devices designed to protect a vulnerable civilian population don’t serve to “shock and awe” the Pentagon’s adversaries. Indeed, given the amount of U.S. naval activity in the Indian Ocean, it is quite possible that underwater sensors are already there (as they are in great quantity in the North Atlantic) and able to detect water movements, but their information is classified. The means for notifying coastal populations of impending danger are more complicated, in the chaotic conditions of semi-colonial capitalism. However, the largest numbers of deaths occurred in coastal cities and towns, where powerful warning sirens could easily be installed just as tornado warning sirens were in the U.S. Great Plains states decades ago. The numbers of deaths now occurring because of untreated injuries becoming infected and festering could have been avoided had Indonesia had a medical system with disaster response teams ready to move.

In short, 225,000 people didn’t have to die. There were simple measures to avoid this calamity that could have been taken and should have been taken long ago. Some scientists did foresee the possibility of Indian Ocean tsunamis, but their warnings were squelched. Solid housing can be built on safe ground, far enough inland that it is not threatened by pounding seas. An Indian writer in the New York Times (14 January) noted that, in contrast to Europe, “the ancient harbor cities of southern Asia … are often situated upriver, at a cautious distance from open water.” But all this implies the existence of a society in which the needs of the population are determining, rather than the interests of the profit-hungry giant “multinational” corporations and the murderous militaries that serve as their guard dogs. It’s not a matter of “priorities,” as liberals and reformists would have you believe, but of class interests. Although the scientific and medical wherewithal to prevent such horrendous loss of life already exists and is easily available, it will take a revolution to put it in place. n

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