Be­fore the Elephants Scream

South Asia is in­creas­ingly vul­ner­a­ble to nat­u­ral dis­as­ters. Will coun­tries in the re­gion ever learn from their mis­takes?

Southasia - - Contents - By Haseeb Ah­san

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.

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