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Floods of tears

The undersea earthquake in the Indian Ocean on 26 December, and the ensuing tidal wave or tsunami, have devastated many areas in South and South-East Asia. At the time of writing, deaths are estimated at 225,000, a figure likely to rise, with millions having lost their homes and most of their possessions, and disease likely to increase the number of fatalities. Across the world, people have watched fascinated as their TV screens showed dramatic shots of the tidal wave hitting coastal areas, only to be appalled by the resulting devastation.

Such catastrophes make many reflect on their cause and what this reveals about the world. The religious strove to reconcile the notion of a loving god with the apparent evidence of uncaring brutality. While science can explain how and why these things happen, mystics and other believers have nothing to offer but nauseating platitudes. The secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain opined that ‘People of faith need to have a very firm belief in God almighty… It is for the betterment of mankind at large.’ Of course he neglected to explain how the deaths of so many can benefit humanity. The leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales was no better, saying that Christians ‘trust that prayers and belief in an omnipotent God will bring good out of seeming evil and senselessness’. But again he failed to suggest how this might happen. 

While natural forces were responsible for the quake and tsunami, it is at least possible that an early-warning system could have been installed, which would have saved many lives, but of course the issue of cost was a real problem. And its effects have been magnified in many places (in southern India, for example) by developments taking place (in the name of profit) right on the beach, thus destroying natural protective barriers such as sand dunes and mangrove forests.

The Aceh area of Indonesia has been one of the hardest hit. But little attention has been paid in the media to Aceh’s situation before the earthquake. Despite its rich gas resources, its people have been blighted by poverty and malnutrition, as these resources have been exploited for the profit of Exxon Mobil and the Indonesian government. Aceh has also been subject to military occupation for years, with assassination and kidnapping rife, since the government refuses to allow a referendum on independence from Indonesia and persecutes anyone who advocates this. The Indonesian government and army have taken control of aid supplies shipped in to the local airport, and are only distributing these to those who support them.

Of course socialism will still see natural disasters, since it will not involve any kind of ‘mastery’ over nature. But their effect will be minimised by sensible precautions unencumbered by the profit motive. Action to relieve distress will be unhampered by nationalistic and military considerations, and will make use of well-established regional and global frameworks for cooperation and responding to emergencies. It is clear that such disasters call for working together rather than against each other and provision according to need rather than ability to pay.

PB