From A World to Win News Service

Why Was There No Warning?

Economic and Political Interests Behind the Tsunami Disaster

Revolutionary Worker #1264, January 16, 2005, posted at

The following is excerpted from an article from A World To Win News Service

January 2, 2005. A World to Win News Service. In the coming weeks and months, many different aspects of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster will come to light, and those who care about the masses will need to analyze them from various angles—from what the people went through in this situation to issues of physical science. For now, we want to pose some questions and focus on one of the most obvious and immediate: Why were so many people swept away with no warning?

"The death toll could have been cut at least in half if the affected region had had the same kind of international warning network set up by the U.S. to protect the adjacent Pacific Basin," The New York Times editorialized December 29. Within days, a UN-sponsored agency announced that it would work to establish one in the Indian Ocean. But why has it taken so long and caused so many deaths before this need was recognized? More than ignorance was involved. The question of economic and political interests is decisive in answering that question.

The "easy" answer, one long repeated by public officials responsible for our fate and some scientists as well, is that tsunamis are rare in the Indian Ocean. This, as everyone now knows, is fatally one-sided. It is true that 90 percent of the world’s tsunamis occur in the Pacific Ocean because of the particularly intense underground activity that makes geologists call it the Ring of Fire. But what some experts say was the worst explosion in geological history happened 71,000 years ago—not very long in the history of the earth—on Sumatra, 150 kilometers from the epicenter (bull’s eye) of the December 26 quake. The most powerful explosion in recorded human history occurred not far away in 1883, when the volcanic eruption on the island of Krakatoa near Sumatra triggered a tsunami even bigger than the one today. The region also shook in 1797, 1833 and 1861. Singapore felt a magnitude 7 earthquake in 2000, and another measuring 7.4 on an island northwest of Sumatra may have been, in retrospect, a foreshock of the recent quake. A few scientists who study geological records kept by the region’s Dutch colonialists and traces of past earthquakes detectable in the growth patterns of coral reefs have been worried for some time.

In the 1990s the UN International Coordination Group for the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific recommended extending the network to the Indian Ocean and throughout the globe. The proposal was ignored. A similar proposition presented at a 1997 international gathering of experts in Peru fell on deaf ears. A meeting in October 2003 in New Zealand voted the proposal down, not for scientific reasons but because it fell outside of the group’s geographical mandate.

A geophysicist at the California Institute of Technology was so worried that he printed up 5,000 brochures at his own expense and distributed them in the region to publicize the danger and what to do about it. He planned to go to Indonesia a month ago, but the trip was cancelled for lack of funds.

"There wasn’t much interest [in Indian Ocean tsunamis] in the scientific community outside of Australia and Indonesia," Geosciences Australia senior seismologist Phil Dunning commented last week. Why? One reason is because there was much less experience in Indian Ocean tsunamis than Pacific ones. But a bigger reason is all too horribly simple: monitoring and research costs money, and no big backer was interested. The U.S. created the Pacific warning system (with help from Japan and Australia), and without U.S. support the extension of the warning network elsewhere just didn’t happen.

One of the questions to be examined is to what extent the U.S. failed to take an interest in such a system, killing it passively, and to what extent it was actively involved in discouraging it. Placing wave motion detectors on floating buoys linked by satellite across oceans has extremely important military implications. It is probably no accident that the U.S. initiated the Pacific system just after World War 2, when it achieved naval hegemony in the Pacific. Much of today’s ocean research is connected in one way or another to the U.S. Navy. Further, all studies of the earth and its crust are not only relevant for military purposes, they are also the heart of the cutthroat and strategic business of finding and exploiting oil.

Because it monitors even much smaller tremors and explosions throughout the globe, the International Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization headquartered in Vienna detected the Sumatra earthquake instantly. But it has no emergency function and no one was on duty. Even after the quake it has not yet been decided whether its extensive data on this seismic event can be released for scientists to study. Many countries consider such information a military secret – about their own and others’ atomic activities – and don’t want it automatically divulged to the public. The U.S. has refused to participate in the Vienna organization, to protect its own secrets while undoubtedly enjoying access to those of other countries. India, which has conducted its own nuclear weapons tests, is not a member. As we will see, the military dimension of this kind of information was to play a key role in turning an unavoidable disaster into an even more devastating tragedy. Further, in general the changes brought about by earthquakes increase the pressure on some fault lines and decrease it on others. Studying the data from this quake is a matter of life or death and could be extremely urgent.

At least as criminal as the lack of a tsunami detection system in the Indian Ocean is what happened when the gathering catastrophe began to dawn on scientists in the Pacific. In a word, just as the powers that be ignored the warnings that a tsunami might occur in the Indian Ocean, once the waves began to march toward its shores no one in power, as far as we now know, took any steps to protect human life.

Experts in Japan, Hawaii and the West Coast of North America became aware of the earthquake shortly after it happened. Within 15 minutes they were sending out notices. Because not every undersea earthquake produces a tsunami, they couldn’t forecast the giant waves at first, and there was not a single detector in the Indian Ocean to tell them. Because of the complexity of interpreting different instrument readings, for several hours they miscalculated the earthquake’s force, at first estimating it as having a magnitude of 8 on the Richter scale. This, they knew, was potentially very serious. Later they realized it was a 9, ten times more powerful. But even at the very beginning it was clear that a tsunami was at least possible , given the quake’s undersea location. A little more than half an hour after the earth trembled, they sent out a tsunami warning, even without yet knowing whether there really was one or how big it was. When they realized the exact magnitude of the upheaval, that dreadful possibility filled them with sheer terror. As the earliest reports of giant waves hitting northwest Sumatra came in, scientists set up mathematical models and predicted what was to happen very closely. It was too late.

The scientists found themselves trapped in their laboratories, their shouts unable to get through the walls. They reported the situation to their superiors – so far, what their superiors did is unknown. They reported to the military. And they sent e-mails, SMSes and faxes to their colleagues. They had no way to get to the people in the tsunami’s path. You can imagine them crying in frustration and dismay.

An inevitably murderous natural disaster killed all the more because it affected so many people already living on the edge of survival. Similar disasters could strike many of the world’s imperial capitals, and the loss of life would be awful. But the particularity of where this quake did hit, although an accident in relation to human society, had a great deal to do with determining how the disaster unfolded.

Sumatra was hit first, initially by the earthquake itself (the only place where it killed people directly on land) and then repeatedly by the sea. As of this writing, it seems that two thirds of the total of disaster victims perished on the northern tip of the island. The province of Aceh in Sumatra was badly damaged—most of the capital city, Banda Aceh, was destroyed, and other cities and many towns and villages vanished entirely. People flying over outlying areas report not seeing a living soul in all but a few places. It is beyond the capacity of this article to examine the relationship between how the people lived there, in what kinds of locations, in what kind of housing and so on, and what happened to them. But Sumatra lies on a well-known geological fault line, and the danger of an earthquake there was obvious to those who care to know and are allowed to. Further, Aceh is under occupation by 40,000 Indonesian troops there to serve and protect the Exxon Mobile liquefied natural gas plant and gas field that make the area too valuable to be left to its indigenous people. Some journalists say that the Indonesia government was warned about the tsunami. The question of how many lives could have been saved is controversial, but no one disputes that it almost certainly was thousands.

There were two hours before the waves reached Sri Lanka, the country second-hardest hit. At least one American scientist is reported to have telephoned the U.S. ambassador there. Who did the diplomat tell, and what did they do?

According to some newspaper accounts, the Thai government was warned. Recently it has been charged that the government held back this information because it didn’t want the country’s tourist industry damaged if it turned out to be a false alarm. Although the army was called out after the disaster, on January 3 the government dispatched 10,000 troops on a counter-insurgency mission to the southern provinces along the Malaysian border.

Another target of the seas was the Indian-owned Andaman and Nicobar islands, near Sumatra and Thailand. India’s main interest in this archipelago of small, low-lying peaks of a submerged mountain range so far from the Indian mainland is geopolitical, especially military, in other words, they serve India’s expansionist interests. The island Car Nicobar is a navy base, and India treats the whole chain as a military area, with access forbidden to people from outside.

The tsunami took three or four hours to reach the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India. There, too, there was no public warning about the waves that had hit Sumatra and were rushing to kill thousands more. By the time the waves reached West Africa some ten hours later the whole world should have known what was happening. But no official fingers were lifted.

Maybe the most disgusting and unfortunately easy-to-understand fact amid these questions is this: in financial terms, the tsunami may not turn out to have been very expensive. Economists quoted by Reuters news agency December 31 put the total cost, in lost property, at 14 billion dollars, little more than a tenth of the 1992 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, that struck down 6,400 people, and less than half as much as Hurricane Andrew that killed 50 people in the U.S. in 1992. Even more comforting to the "financial community," Munich Re, the world’s largest re-insurer (a company that insures other insurance companies against unexpected large losses), announced that its clients’ pain would be minor. In fact, these economists predicted that despite the loss of what is at this moment estimated to be 150,000 lives, with another five million people facing extreme hardship, the global economic impact will be small or even negligible, since so many of those who died were simply fighting for survival and not a big part of the world economy.

"Most of the damage, aside from the death toll of course, was to residences, and it is a heavy price for the people but it won’t have that much of a subtraction from production capacity, the exception being the tourism industry in Thailand," an Australian bank economist explained. The human cost didn’t register on the world’s stock markets.

Capitalism "builds best on best" – in other words, development is considered most efficient when it takes place in most developed areas, between and within countries. This system thrives on and worsens inequalities – and the death toll from natural disasters fattens on them. In the future, even if an effective Indian Ocean tsunami detection system is ever really set up and not just an empty promise, it will not eliminate a very major factor in this tragedy: the unequal development and the political oppression that inevitably accompanies and enforces it.

In short, the basic human problem lies with the relations between people and in particular property relations: the relations between countries, where imperialist capital subordinates whole countries and reorganizes them according to the interests of a handful of parasites headquartered in the imperial metropolises, and the relations among all human beings individually and collectively in a system in which the first, last and only real question is profit – cold- blooded money calculations, the politics of maintaining this criminal system and the interests of the country now aiming to rule over it all, the United States.