Sunday, January 02, 2005

The South Asian Disaster

The enormous (9.0 on the Richter scale) earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated so many coastal areas in the Indian Ocean basin occurred at a time when many of us were focused on family and not on the wider world. In fact, initial aid efforts were hampered by the fact that many western NGO representatives who normally live and work in the region were away on holiday vacations when the disaster struck. The tragedy is too enormous to try to recount. Photo essays in the New York Times and the Washington Post (just click on "Interactive graphics and photos" and "Photos," respectively, under the papers' front-page stories on the disaster) are useful sources for those trying to gauge the enormity of what happened. (Be sure to see the satellite images.)

Indonesia, where officials are now estimating that over 100,000 people were killed, and Sri Lanka, with roughly 25,000 killed, bore the brunt of the disaster. But there were also fatalities related to the tsunami in Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Tanzania, and Somalia.

States and international lending agencies have pledged $2 billion in humanitarian assistance with the government of Japan accounting for a quarter of that amount. The U.S. initially pledged $15 million, then hastily upped that amount to $35 million before settling on the significantly higher sum of $350 million. Those experienced in coordinating responses to humanitarian disasters are skeptical concerning how much of the money pledged will actually be delivered. Of $1.1 billion pledged by for the reconstruction of Bam, the Iranian city devastated by an earthquake exactly one year before the Indian Ocean tsunami, only $17 million has been delivered thus far. Governments, like individuals, do not always make good on their pledges.

Equally troubling is the fact that, historically, disaster relief contributions tend to come at the expense of existing humanitarian commitments. For this reason, humanitarian efforts in Sudan and the Congo are expected to suffer.