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Tsunami and Nuke Disaster: How Human Arrogance Intensifies Suffering

The collision between natural hazards and human society and economy is what creates a disaster.

This century, barely out of the box, is already flush with mega-disasters: Hurricane Katrina, Haiti’s earthquake, the 2004 Boxing Day earthquake, the BP oil spill, Cyclone Nargis and the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, and now Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns.

Apart from industrial screw-ups like the BP oil spill and Hungary’s “red sludge tsunami,” these events are classified as natural disasters, which is a misleading term. The adjective "natural" should remind us that earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes and tsunamis are part of a healthy planetary process. Hurricanes and fires in particular play an important role in ecological renewal. It is the collision between a natural hazard and human society and economy that creates the disaster.

Humanity, after all, owes its rise to a wandering asteroid that hammered the Earth 65 million years ago. And if it weren’t for plate tectonics that subduct and lift crustal masses with the resultant volcanoes and earthquakes, there would be no earth under our feet, just a watery world.

How a society is impacted depends on how it is organized. The February 2010 earthquake in Chile, which claimed less than 600 lives, was about 500 times more powerful than Haiti’s 7.0 magnitude convulsion that killed more than 222,000 people

Japan’s quake at magnitude 9.0 was even more powerful than Chile’s, but relatively few people appear to have perished from the tremor itself because of Japan’s famed emergency preparedness. It was the tsunami that killed thousands and the apocalyptic meltdowns that may claim many more lives still.

Tsunamis offer a unique view into the intersection of society and natural hazards. An Oxfam study found that in much of Indonesia, Thailand and India ravaged by the 2004 tsunami, four times as many women died as men. The timing of the tsunami, hitting on a Sunday morning, struck women hard because Indonesian women who lived near the ocean were much more likely to be at home caring for children, and women in Indian fishing villages were waiting on beaches to haul back the day’s catch. Plus, according to Oxfam, women in these societies were less likely to have the ability to escape by swimming or climbing trees, all of which contributed to the gender imbalance in deaths.

Economic factors were also at play. Untrammeled seaside development like shrimp farming and tourist resorts decimated seagrass beds, coral reefs and mangroves, all of which can greatly diminish the force of tsunamis. These projects also often impoverish, displace and concentrate local people in close quarters up to the water’s edge, which increases their vulnerability. And poor countries are far less likely to have early warning systems for tsunamis. These same factors multiply the human toll of cyclones. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, those who lacked the money and means to flee suffered the most deaths.

In Haiti, this system of capitalist underdevelopment, enforced over two centuries by France, the United States, the IMF and World Bank, left it economically devastated prior to the January 2010 temblor. Over decades, the migration of Haiti’s rural poor into urban slums left millions living in extremely shoddy housing, which magnified the number of deaths enormously. The effects of underdevelopment, especially deforestation, intensify other natural hazards such as hurricanes, which has added to Haiti’s misery and vulnerability both before and after the earthquake.

Japan’s tragedy, on the other hand, stems more from the hubris of overdevelopment. Its government spent billions of dollars building seawalls that were overwhelmed by devastating waves of water. Critics warned against siting nuke plants on the coast precisely because they would be exposed to the earthquake-tsunami combination. “But the government gives [nuclear] power companies wide discretion in deciding whether a site is safe,” according to the New York Times. In the case of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, diesel generators for back-up cooling were placed below a seawall and knocked out of commission by a tsunami that topped the barrier. 

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