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
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. …