The Politics of Natural Disaster (The Lessons We Never Learn)

By Guest Columnist May 23, 2008

by Thanu Yakupitiyage Photo credit: AFP I remember the horror in December 2004 when the Asian Tsunami affected several countries across Asia leading to an outpour of sympathy and international aid from all over the world. As is routine after mass catastrophe, reports were written and strategies put into place; Governments, politicians, and experts sat to discuss the ‘lessons learned’ from this tragedy, and how to prevent future disasters in the region and world wide. Eight months later in August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans rendering thousands homeless, I wondered if the United States had learned any lessons at all from what had happened in Asia previously. Did U.S politicians sit around strategizing that “next time” they wouldn’t alienate entire communities of people of color, and would send more than just military troops down to ‘maintain order’ and stop looting? Following these overwhelming, catastrophic natural disasters that affect unprepared governments, we now observe as the death toll in China continues to rise to over 55,740 deaths with 5 million people left homeless due to the earthquake in Sichuan province; and as the Burmese military junta finally swallow their pride and agree to let all international aid workers enter the country more than two weeks after Cyclone Nargis ravaged Southern Burma leading to more than 78,000 deaths with 2.5 million people affected. There is a trend here- it is the appallingly clear message being relayed that it is okay to spend time accumulating “lessons learned” at the hands of poor people. The most vulnerable who are affected by natural disasters are people such as farmers in Burma who have lost entire harvests of rice, civilians in rural provinces of China without earthquake resilient homes, fishermen in Sri Lanka still regaining livelihoods three years after the tsunami, and displaced residents of New Orleans unable to go home. In a time when climate change virtually guarantees that more natural disasters are to come, it is crucial that preliminary measures be taken in low income regions that are the most likely to be affected. Governments have learned enough lessons; it is time for concrete action.