The Japanese word “tsunami” has now entered our everyday language. The deadly force of gigantic sea waves rolling across the ocean to swallow up human lives, homes and livelihoods, hurling devastation on the shores of a dozen nations, is seared into our consciousness. The United Nations estimates the total number of dead will exceed 150,000, and could go as high as 300,000 if survivors don’t get clean water.
The countries hardest hit are Indonesia, reporting at least 95,000 dead; Sri Lanka, with more than 30,000; India, with 9,600; and Thailand, which predicts its death toll will reach 8,000.
In some coastal villages in the Indonesian island of Sumatra, close to the epicenter of the earthquake that triggered the tsunami, over 70 percent of the inhabitants have died. Infrastructure was wiped out and some 1 million people have been left without water, food or shelter.
In the Maldives, a tiny nation of 199 inhabited islands, 20 of those islands were totally destroyed. Some 13,000 people have been displaced. At least 82 are dead and dozens missing.
In Sri Lanka the number of homeless is somewhere between 800,000 and 1 million. In India, at least 140,000 are in relief centers.
The giant wave even reached Somalia, on the West African coast, some 3,000 miles from the quake center. There nearly 300 people are confirmed dead, with many still missing. About 50,000 have been displaced.
In the weeks and months ahead, we will examine the many sides of this overwhelming global catastrophe. Here we raise a few points for consideration.
• The thousands of dead, and the survivors left without shelter or livelihood, are among the world’s most poor: their homes fragile shacks, their livelihoods dependent on a wooden boat or tiny plot of land. Yet global corporate giants, many based in the U.S., are reaping huge profits by exploiting the rich natural and human resources of these very same countries. The companies include familiar U.S. brand names like the Gap, Nike, and Exxon-Mobil.
• Unchecked “free market” development has destroyed natural environments, such as mangrove forests, that formerly protected the shores and coastal dwellers.
• An advance warning system would have saved thousands of lives. There was no such system in place for the Indian Ocean region, although there is one for the Pacific. Why not?
After an embarrassing initial offer of a measly $3.5 million in U.S. aid (by comparison, India, with 9,600 dead of its own, offered $25 million to Sri Lanka), President Bush upped the pledge first to $15 million, then to $35 million, and finally $350 million. Meanwhile, he is spending at least $5 billion a month on the Iraq war.
Bush has a history of not fulfilling aid pledges he’s made in the past, plus his policies have drained the U.S. Treasury to finance his adventurist war policies, and to give tax handouts to the rich.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on world leaders to honor their pledges and warned that the aid must be “fresh and additional money, not robbing Peter to pay Paul, pulling it from other crises” — all very real possibilities with this administration.
To get himself off the hook, Bush is now appealing for donations from the American public. We applaud the humanitarian generosity and solidarity offered by ordinary American people. But this does not take the place of a real commitment from our government to genuine and sustained humanitarian aid, with no military or economic strings attached. That won’t happen without a broad movement demanding it.
The U.S. should be part of a massive international relief and development program for the devastated Indian Ocean region, under the auspices of the United Nations, not a separate structure. Aid should include cancellation of the massive debt burden that weighs on these impoverished countries.