The World Turned Upside Down
By Ignacio Ramonet
We have rarely witnessed human tragedy on this scale: on December 26, 2004, after a colossal earthquake beneath the sea off Sumatra, giant tidal waves smashed into coastlines around the Indian Ocean, causing one of the worst catastrophes in history. Provisional figures indicate that at least 150,000 people were killed, another 500,000 were injured and 5 million lost, or were driven from, their homes. The disaster was international: the cataclysm struck 13 countries (eight in Asia, five in Africa), and took the lives of some 10,000 nationals from 45 countries around the world—including 2,000 Swedes, 1,000 Germans, 700 Italians, 500 Austrians, 400 Britons and 200 French. Mexicans, Colombians, Brazilians, Filipinos and others died too.
The presence of westerners and their high casualty rate, as well as contributing to the global impact of a catastrophe that happened—by terrible chance - during the celebration of Christmas and new year, helped generate intense media coverage. Sadly, that would not have been the case had the losses been limited to Asia. Western public opinion has understandably been traumatized by the scale of human suffering, destruction and desolation, and responded with an overwhelming desire to help and to express solidarity. Humanitarian organizations say that they have rarely encountered public and private generosity on such a scale.
Beyond the cataclysm, this identification with all those who suffered around the Indian Ocean has opened the eyes of many westerners to the reality of everyday living conditions in the affected countries. It is clear that the level of aid mobilized, however significant, falls far short of what is needed to resolve the structural problems faced by those involved.
It is a simple fact that any natural disaster will have far fewer victims in a rich than in a poor country. A year before the tsunami, on December 26, 2003, an earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale destroyed the city of Bam in Iran, and more than 30,000 people died. Yet a more violent shock, 8.0, on the Japanese island of Hokkaido on September 26, 2003, caused only a few injuries and no deaths. A 6.2 magnitude earthquake in Algeria on May 21, 2003 killed more than 3,000 people; yet nobody died when a more violent tremor (7.0) shook the entire northwest of Japan on May 26, 2003.
There is a reason for these discrepancies. Japan, like other developed countries, is able to apply far more costly, earthquake-resistant building standards. We are unequal in the face of catastrophe. Every year disasters affect some 211 million people, two-thirds of whom live in underdeveloped countries where poverty increases their vulnerability. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) published a report, “Reducing Disaster Risk: a Challenge for Development,” in February 2004, in which it wondered whether it was useful to continue to talk of “natural” disasters. The impact of an earthquake, a tropical cyclone or a flood varies enormously between countries and often depends upon preventative policies implemented by the authorities.
If the tsunami had happened in the Pacific Ocean, the number of victims would have been far fewer, as coastal states there, led by Japan and the United States, have finalized a detection and alert system to issue advance warning of any lethal tidal wave and give coastal populations adequate time to take shelter. Unfortunately the purchase, installation and upkeep of such a system is extremely expensive.
The Indian Ocean catastrophe moves us, not only by its scale and violence, but because the entire tragedy happened in a day. But if, over a year, we were to observe the countries and their inhabitants with the same interest that we are currently devoting to their plight, we would notice an even worse slow-motion human catastrophe. Every year, in the countries around the Bay of Bengal (India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Maldives), several million people, most of them children, die because they have no access to clean water and must drink from polluted sources.
Public and private aid commitments to countries affected by the tsunami currently stand at some $3bn. But although the magnitude of this sum has been greeted with universal self-congratulation, it is nothing compared to other spending. The annual US military budget is $400bn. When, in the autumn of 2004, Florida was hit by a series of tropical cyclones, causing damage that, though significant, bore no comparison with the current disaster, the US government immediately allocated $3bn in relief. Realistically, the sums promised are insignificant in comparison with the needs of states overwhelmed by the tsunami.
Latest World Bank figures indicate that five of the affected countries owe more than $300bn in foreign debt. Annual repayments amount to $32bn, which is more than 10 times greater than the promised assistance. Around the world, indebted poor countries repay more than $230bn every year to the richer countries of the northern hemisphere. This is the world turned upside down. Since the tsunami it has been suggested that a moratorium might be applied to the debt burden of the devastated countries. But what is needed is outright cancellation of the debt. Recently the US persuaded its partners in the Paris Club of creditor nations to write off the debt of Iraq, occupied by its troops. If this can be done for Iraq, which is rich in oil and gas, why should it not be possible for countries that are infinitely poorer and afflicted by this catastrophe?
The UNDP has estimated that $80bn a year would be enough to guarantee every human being on earth access to basic services - drinking water, shelter, adequate food, primary education and healthcare. This figure is exactly the same as the supplementary budget that President Bush recently requested from Congress to finance the war in Iraq.
The level of need exposed by the tsunami demonstrates that humanitarian generosity, however admirable and necessary, is not a long-term solution. Emotion is no substitute for policy. Each new disaster reveals in detail the structural suffering of the poorest, who are the everyday victims of the unequal, unfair distribution of the world’s wealth. If we really want to reduce the destruction caused by natural disasters, we must look for permanent solutions, including the compensatory redistribution of resources to benefit all of the planet’s population.
In response to crises like this, and to build a fairer world, it seems necessary to establish an international value-added tax. The idea of a global tax levied on foreign exchange transactions (the Tobin tax), on arms sales or on the consumption of non-renewable energy, was proposed to the UN in September 2004 by Brazil’s President “Lula” da Silva, Chile’s President Ricardo Lagos, France’s President Jacques Chirac and Spain’s Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero.
More than half of the world’s states, some 100 countries, now support this welcome initiative. Surely we can build upon the universal sympathy generated by this disaster to demand the immediate implementation of this international solidarity tax.
Translated by Donald Hounam
—Le Monde diplomatique, January 2005