The Blame Game, and How to Help

My instinct is to be very slow to blame governments and other human institutions for the consequences of natural disasters. (Likewise, when our country was attacked by terrorists, I wanted to destroy the terrorists, not to attack my own government for failing to stop them.) We linked this morning–just scroll down–to an AFP story that blamed the victims of the tsunami for their own demise, on the ground that they destroyed mangrove swamps and foolishly lived (or vacationed) near the sea.
Reader Mike Weatherford wasn’t impressed with the AFP “expert:”

“What has made this a disaster is that people have started to occupy part of the landscape that they shouldn’t have occupied,” [Jeff McNeely, chief scientist of the World Conservation Union] told AFP in a telephone interview from Paris. “Fifty years ago the coastline was not densely occupied as now by tourist hotels.”

True, and 50 years ago, the poverty of the region was ten times what it is today. As for “shouldn’t have occupied”, that’s idiotic. There are few places on Earth that aren’t prone to one kind of natural disaster or another. According to this idiot, we probably shouldn’t live on the Great Plains, because they’re so prone to tornados, or in Flordia, where we had four major hurricanes this season.

The hotels did not replace traditional villages because the villagers built inland, McNeely said.

That’s not what I saw over there. The villagers built back in the first line of trees, away from the beach where it was so hot, but where there were cool breezes from the water to keep the mosquitos and other bugs away.

“What has also happened over the last several decades is that many mangroves have been cleared to grow shrimp ponds so that we, here in Europe, can have cheap shrimp,” he added.

BIG problem with this statement. Mangroves ONLY grow in tidal marshes. They don’t grow on beaches. Nobody builds a resort on a tidal marsh. As for shrimp ponds, you usually don’t build those in a tidal marsh, either. Tidal marshes are too prone to disease, flooding, and invasion by unwanted species. All the shrimp ponds I saw in Thailand were well back from the sea, on dry land.
What you have here is a man with an agenda blaming the wrong people for the wrong problems. The people of India have always lived along the coast, and have always fished the waters. The same is true of Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka, and a hundred other places. Three things combined to make this the disaster it is: a larger than normal quake (9.0), striking offshore, in a poor part of the world where crowding and poverty are rampant. If the nations of the Indian Ocean had installed tidal buoys, the alert could have saved thousands. If they had an effective communications system, the warning they DID receive could have saved thousands. If they had an installed tsunami warning system, there is a good possibility that tens of thousands could have been saved. Poverty, not “man’s ruthless destruction of the natural environment” was the root cause of the massive loss of life in South Asia. The idiot interviewed by Agence France Press is just a useful tool for the “hate people” propaganda movement.

Another reader agrees, blaming the tsunami disaster on our persistent refusal to assess risk rationally:

What’s lost in the horror at the death toll from the Indonesian earthquake and tsunami is the world’s penchant for focusing on theoretical risks rather than real ones. In the 1883 Krakatoa volcanic explosion which took place in the same region of South Asia, a tidal wave resulted leading to an estimated 36,000 deaths. Even as a once in a hundred years event, this seems like a real risk that could have been addressed in advance by the world’s governments, international bodies and NGO’s. Instead, these groups, while claiming to look out for the public good, have focused on a myriad of theoretical risks, from global warming to genetically engineered corn, on which a treasury has been spent.
An example is the dioxin scare of the 1980’s which lead to the expenditure of billions of dollars, public and private, to investigate, clean up and control releases of the substance. This expenditure was made even though one would be hard pressed to find one person in all of human history who died from exposure to dioxin. (Oh yeah? Name him!)
If these billions, along with others, had been spent intelligently instead of chasing the latest ecological hype, 50,000 or more innocent people would be alive today.

No doubt a lot will be written, in the days to come, about missed opportunities to warn coastal residents about incoming tidal waves, and other ways in which the tragedy could have been lessened. Hopefully at least some of this conversation will be constructive. In the meantime, here is a list of places to go to send help.


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