Before the Elephants Scream
South Asia is increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters. Will countries in the region ever learn from their mistakes?
It is common for developed countries like the United States, to invest millions of dollars to mitigate disastrous effects on their lands. In early 2005, the U.S Government invested 37.5 million dollars to upgrade its Tsunami warning system. On the other hand, though victims of devastating natural disasters year in and year out, developing countries have invested very little in this area.
Natural disasters come in 2 categories - ‘Hydro-meteorological’ that includes floods, droughts and storms and ‘Geo-physical,’ which includes earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis. The differences reflect the scale of impact and other technical circumstances. Since 1985, the numbers of natural disasters in South Asian countries have doubled. Global climate change may be the cause but the need to devise a strategy and minimize the damages caused by natural disasters has never been more urgent.
Any natural disaster affects the lives of those residing in the area severely and instantly. Apart from the loss of lives, this can entail a loss of physical integrity, assets, jobs, businesses and livestock, causing injuries and disabilities. The global cost of natural disasters has risen 15 times as opposed to a decade before. Consequently, on-going development projects immediately come to a halt.
In recent years, South Asian countries have taken initiative and formed the SAARC Disaster Management Center. This center will serve all eight SAARC countries and will include professionals working to reduce risks associated with natural disasters. The center is also responsible for conducting public awareness campaigns, training programs and facilitating research studies in the same area. The idea is to establish a common disaster management system across the region so that the after-effects can be minimized.
While natural disasters cannot be prevented, prior information and preparation can certainly help save valuable lives and sometimes infrastructure as well. Currently, it is not within human capability to predict disasters like earthquakes or tsunamis but the phenomenon of pre-warning has been observed in animals. Wildlife experts believe that animals have deep hearing and can judge earth vibrations much better than
humans can. According to eyewitness accounts, before a tsunami strikes, elephants can be seen screaming and running to higher grounds. Similarly, flamingos avoid going to their low breeding areas and dogs refuse to go out.
Scientists believe that earthquakes create vibrations in the earth’s crust, which produce electromagnetic waves in the atmosphere and animals have the capability to sense this.
Here the call for action is to increase public awareness about natural disasters. Many in South Asia are not aware of how to behave in such situations. If there is more public awareness there will be less casualties and losses.
The way information is disseminated is also very important. For instance, people on the beaches of Sri Lanka and India were warned by their friends and families to leave, after the tsunami hit Indonesia and Malaysia. They heard the news on the TV and communicated the message to others on the phone. If a more elaborate communication system can be built then precious lives can be saved.
Another worrying observation from the death toll of natural disasters is that women are more affected than men and the ratio is almost 1:3. Women in less developed countries are less exposed to physical activities such as sports, exercise, and training. They have less awareness of how to act in case of an emergency. Here motivational change in female circles is acutely required.
According to SAARC estimates, around 290,000 people have died in South Asia between 1990 and 2009 due to natural disasters. Yet countries in the region are still not proactive on this issue. In 2010, valuable agricultural land in Pakistan was badly devastated by floods. The negligence continued and in 2011 a destructive flood resulted in more victims, deaths and ruined lands.
Stakeholders need to be more proactive and take this matter very seriously. Smart investments can mitigate the effects of natural disasters. Increasing public awareness, synchronizing communication systems and enforcing common disaster management systems can increase the probability of saving lives.