Global Disaster Plan Needed By BECKY O'MALLEY Editorial

Tuesday December 28, 2004

News of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Asia has shocked and scared those of us who live with the knowledge that it could happen here. When 3,000 Americans died suddenly in the World Trade Center, it seemed like an unimaginable number of deaths, but in Southeast Asia 23,000 deaths had been counted by Monday morning, with more to come as information continues to trickle in from remoter regions. For many Berkeley residents who have come here as students and stayed to become citizens, the fate of friends and family members back home caused immediate anxiety. Others of us have made friends through our travels to these countries and are worried about them now. Former Berkeleyans have settled in the affected countries, too—a good friend now lives in Bangkok, but often goes to beach resorts for vacations, and we haven’t heard from him yet. We heard from another friend who was on an island off the coast of Thailand that she was safe because she was on the landward side of the island, and we didn’t even know she’d gone there for a vacation until she e-mailed that she was all right.  

It’s not the first time that a disaster of this scale has struck somewhere in the world in our lifetime, but it’s possibly the first time that the new kinds of media which now criss-cross the globe have brought the disaster home with such immediacy. CNN’s web site, just one of many, offers news stories, maps, videos of victims and even e-mail accounts sent directly from people on the scene—just regular people, not reporters. We know more about this event two days later than we did about what was happening in Santa Cruz two days after the 1989 Loma Prieta quake.  

Scientific pundits are already saying that a decent warning system for the Indian Ocean, similar to the one which has been in place for the Pacific for the last 50 years, could have alerted many shoreline residents to the impending tsunami far enough in advance to allow them to seek high ground. According to a report in The Scotsman newspaper in Britain early Monday, Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon has called for talks on creating a global early-warning system. New Zealand, his home country, has been protected for many years by such a plan. Local leaders in the affected area have said that the cost would be prohibitive for their individual countries, some of them very poor, and that they were caught off-guard because tsunamis are relatively rare in the Indian Ocean.  

This is why it’s crucial to create a new meaning for the word “globalization”, which has developed needlessly negative connotations. Dealing with risks like tsunamis, global warming, ocean depletion and other world-wide problems is simply impossible with the new nationalism which the President of the United States has been pushing throughout his term in office. We need to learn how to globalize risk, so that sub-sets of humans are not left to go it alone just because they happen to have been born in the wrong country. Developed countries like Japan, New Zealand and the United States have learned a lot about how to prevent needless loss of life in natural disasters, and their know-how should become the common property of humanity.  

The United States’ go-it-alone attitude in the international arena has had disastrous consequences for people in Afghanistan and Iraq, where we’ve made more havoc in our ham-handed attempts to help. International cooperation is what’s needed, especially when it’s a question of proactive efforts to prevent excess damage from natural disasters. It would be good if the response around the world to this most recent catastrophe could serve as a catalyst to developing a world-wide system to extend warnings equally to all threatened countries regardless of whether they’re rich or poor. 


—Becky O’Malley