By Arthur Lerner-Lam, Leonardo Seeber, and Robert Chen
The Christian Science Monitor
The astounding tragedy in the Indian Ocean is not just a human disaster of unbearable magnitude. Nor is it a matter of fate. It is the consequence of years of underinvestment in the scientific and technical infrastructure needed to reduce the vulnerability of developing countries to natural and environmental calamity.
Disasters such as this one mobilize relief organizations and developed countries to offer assistance, compassion, and determination in rescue, recovery, and reconstruction. But the effect of major disasters extends well beyond the immediate lives lost. In the aftermath, millions of people will face ongoing problems of lost households, lost livelihoods and well-being, and the ruination of fragile community and social structures. Millions will be at increased risk from disease and starvation.
Such realities mean that years, if not decades, of support will be needed. And the earth doesn't stop turning after one disaster. The region of the Indian Ocean hit by the tsunami is afflicted by typhoons year after year. Some of its resilience to large storms has been washed away.
Those of us who study disasters and their management wonder to what extent the scale of this tragedy would have been lessened had the technologies and scientific capabilities of the developed world been trained on the Indian Ocean and South Asia.
Disasters affect poor and developing countries disproportionately. The poor's struggle for daily survival does not allow for disaster preparedness. Persistent environmental stress, such as recurring natural disasters, diverts long-term investment in sustainable development. Little is left for the sorts of investments that make for livable societies. When this happens repeatedly, countries can get trapped in a reactive rather than proactive development trajectory.
What will motivate the developed world to reduce the effect of disasters before they happen? Should it not be axiomatic that there is a human right to knowledge and technology that can benefit all?
The Sumatra earthquake was no surprise, geologically speaking. And global networks of seismometers operated by the developed world were able to locate the earthquake and quickly characterize its potential to unleash a tsunami within a fraction of the time it took for the wave to cross the Bay of Bengal. Despite years of discussions, the relatively inexpensive water-level sensors needed to sense and track a tsunami were not in place. Neither was there a comprehensive response infrastructure.
From hurricanes in the Caribbean to earthquakes in Southeast Asia to drought in Africa, we know enough about natural disaster occurrence to identify vulnerable regions. …