- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 1, 2005

In the midst of a gale 21 years ago while working as a doctor in a coastal hospital in south India, I witnessed the harrowing plight of desperate fishermen and their families in absolute agony while catamarans and rafts capsized in strong winds and high churning waves of a foamy sea tossing around boats and fishermen like straws in the wind.

The anguish was due to lack of forewarning and the anger to a large rescue boat docked at harbor with its staff nowhere in sight. Fishermen engulfed in giant waves desperately tried to swim back to shore with no help in view.

The tsunami of last Sunday was orders of magnitude greater. A very loud warning, or some reports suggest just a few minutes of early indication, could have saved thousands who might have been able to move inland earlier. The news that many places had no alarm that could be sounded, and even that U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists in Hawaii, half a world away, may have diagnosed at least part of the impending tragedy but did not know how to alert countries in the region brought those memories rushing back. This is hardly the time to point fingers, but surely some multilateral agency could have put an address book on the Web to start.

My extended family lives a few miles off the coast in the affected region and is safe. So did more than 100,000 people, including foreign tourists, have to die? Even in the best of times, residents of the South Asian coast generally survive precariously by fishing in often over-harvested waters.

Such fishermen go out on rickety canoes in the early morning. The risk-to-reward ratio is skewed because the catch is unpredictable or declining. Therefore, coastal villages are often desperately poor and have patchy infrastructure and easily washed-away housing. Tourism may offer diversification in some places, but the vast majority remains fishermen.

The problem’s scale is one that can be addressed only by joining multiple forces. New technologies can help. Just as NASA’s space endeavors produced many spinoff benefits, so too can enhanced management of emergencies that Homeland Security has researched, including rapid evacuation procedures.

Whether engendered by undersea earthquakes or fierce winds, such destructive ocean waves require early warning all along the affected shores. Coastal families should at least be able to expect modern alert systems. Particularly since information technology (IT) is a core competence of India, this tragedy could produce a safer future for coastal villages. India could provide the software, America the satellite-enabled logistics skills and China the hardware for a combined modern solution to similar catastrophes. Further, Japan, an earthquake- and typhoon-prone archipelago with long jagged coastlines and the world’s second-largest economy, has accumulated centuries of experience in dealing with seaborne threats and has a sophisticated network of sensors and national centers capable interpreting the disparate data and authority to issue prompt evacuation warnings that are readily heeded.

There are short-, medium- and longer-term humanitarian needs. Buildings and embankments construction and reconstruction will come a bit later. Fresh water, chlorine tablets for decontamination, purification equipment, rehydration solutions all are needed up-front to deal with the threat of diarrheal disease outbreaks that follow major natural disasters. Antibiotics and analgesics, rice and other food, tents and clothing are standard requirements in countless disasters across the globe time and again.

Even as the extent of the devastation and the specific requirements are being estimated, governmental, intergovernmental and nongovernmental agencies are flying in provisions. Advanced IT-enabled logistics can minimize delays in getting the right supplies in, and two-way Internet communications benefit the estimates’ accuracy.

In international development, there generally are no prizes for prevention, only for cures after the fact. But the scale of this catastrophe may just change that.


The writer has worked as a physician and international development expert for Harvard, the World Bank Group and the Rockefeller Foundation.

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