Economics of disaster

January 7, 2005

In the tsunami's wake, Ian Davis insists debt write-offs will help more than early warning systems

The world changes after disasters.

"Form follows failure" as horrific events lead to radical developments in technology, laws, policies, attitudes and economies.

I have worked in disaster management for 32 years and have experience of more than 40 major catastrophes. But I have never observed anything that resembles this tragedy in scale and impact.

We can expect radical developments in coming months. A new tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean will undoubtedly emerge. But who will pay for it?

The vast expense of the Pacific tsunami warning system is picked up by wealthy nations such as the US, Canada and Japan. But aside from Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, which Indian Ocean countries have the resources to support such a system?

Tsunamis will remain exceedingly rare in the region so, in crude cost-benefit terms, it might be more sensible to guard against more frequent threats such as reducing coastal flooding caused by tropical cyclones, supporting earthquake-resistant buildings in seismic zones and introducing controls on major river systems that regularly flood.

Despite the unprecedented amount of money donated by the public and governments, long-term finance is still a key issue.

At a recent international conference following Hurricane Ivan, Jamaica's director of disaster planning pondered why her country remained so vulnerable despite new developments in disaster management.

She concluded that the underlying reason was poverty and indebtedness was a primary cause. For every dollar Jamaica produced, 60 cents serviced the debts that the country had recklessly accumulated. Therefore, she announced, Jamaica would not request any further loans for disaster recovery operations.

So Chancellor Gordon Brown's initiative to freeze the debt burden on the countries affected by the tsunami is of vital significance.

If this form follows the failure, and if countries such as Sri Lanka can avoid further loans as they seek to rebuild their shattered economies, then they may learn from the Jamaican experience.

Raising public awareness in all the affected countries is important, though this can be incorporated into existing cyclone preparedness programmes.

The lack of any scenario plan for this tsunami was painfully obvious as the United Nations and governments worldwide fumbled about.

The lesson is that more reliable and detailed contingency plans are needed in countries that expect disasters and in those that give assistance.

Universities can play a new role in the wake of the catastrophe. While governments have fickle memories and short-term preoccupations, universities have a more far-sighted perspective.

They can document the stories of survivors and rescue attempts, note the hazard characteristics to support scientific research on tsunamis, keep records to inform future generations and support the development of an institutional memory of the tragedy.

Academic institutions also need to develop disaster management masters courses, assist in public education and train local professionals to reduce risks.

After a major disaster there is typically an outcry as the media drive political leaders to announce action so victims will not have died in vain.

This rhetoric is gradually supplanted by logical argument as the cost implications of the proposed changes are calculated.

This can lead to new legislation, policies or technological changes that may assist in developing a safety culture.

Academics can influence this process. We need to demand that our governments and universities take concerted action to improve public safety in both this region and globally.

Ian Davis is visiting professor of disaster management at Cranfield University.

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