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Natural disaster

Political earthquake

ON 26 DECEMBER, a colossal earthquake under the sea off Sumatra caused devastation in the region and sent powerful shock-waves, tsunami, across the Indian Ocean. The rapidly moving, lethal waves smashed without warning onto the shores of 13 Asian and African countries, causing phenomenal destruction, especially in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. The impact of the tsunami was absolutely catastrophic, a human tragedy on an unimaginable scale.

Over 226,000 were most likely killed, at least another 500,000 injured. Perhaps five million are homeless as a result of the destruction. Millions are now struggling to survive amid the devastation, desperate for food, clean water, medicines, shelter.

The tsunami also claimed the lives of at least 5,000 people, mostly tourists, from 45 other countries around the world. The high casualty rate among Western tourists, especially when the tragedy unfolded over the Christmas/New Year holiday, intensified media coverage in Europe and North America. People everywhere were stunned by the scale of the destruction and suffering – and immediately responded with an unprecedented flood of donations, offers of active assistance, and general expressions of human solidarity. The generosity of workers, including poor pensioners and the homeless, was in sharp contrast to the tardy response of capitalist governments, especially Blair in Britain and Bush in the US.

The cataclysmic events around the Indian Ocean, moreover, have dramatically opened the eyes of millions of ordinary people in the West to the appalling conditions of everyday life faced by the majority of people in the poor, under-developed countries. This mood of sympathy and solidarity is a powerful counter-blow to the racism and xenophobia whipped up by right-wing politicians and the far right in recent years.

‘Natural’ disasters?

THE SUMATRA EARTHQUAKE and resulting tsunamis were a natural disaster – so how can anyone be blamed for the death and destruction? But if the tsunami had occurred in the Pacific Ocean, there would have been far, far fewer deaths – in fact, they may well have been minimal. Countries around the Pacific, led by the US and Japan, have a sophisticated earthquake and tsunami warning system, with procedures to give coastal populations advance warning of approaching tsunamis. When the economic and strategic interests of advanced capitalist countries are at stake, no expense is spared.

In fact, scientists at the tsunami warning centre in Hawaii detected the Sumatran earthquake and realised there was a danger of major tsunamis. However, the centre did not use the World Meteorological Organisation’s global telecommunications system to contact Indian Ocean countries because the "protocols were not in place". (Independent on Sunday, 16 January) According to officials at Unesco, which runs the system, "we do not have an agreement for passing the information on" for tsunamis in the Indian Ocean. One reason behind this is that some governments have objected that possible false alarms and unnecessary evacuations would hit their tourist trade. This is despite the fact that the Indian Ocean has some of the world’s most heavily populated shores.

After the disaster, government representatives meeting at a special Unesco conference in Kobe, Japan, have agreed to establish a network of deep-sea censors and a regional communications system. It is proposed that this should be operational by mid-2006, and will cost $30 million (£16m). However, there are competing plans, with powers like the US pushing their own proposals. Moreover, some aid agencies "fear that other objectives, such as reducing deaths from more frequent natural disasters such as floods, typhoons and drought, may be overshadowed by last month’s tsunami and that the conference itself may yield nothing concrete". (Guardian, 20 January)

An Indian Ocean warning system will clearly be too late for those who perished on 26 December. Many, probably a majority, could have been saved if a warning system had been in place. During the 1990s, scientists participating in the UN group, the international coordination group for the tsunami warning system in the Pacific, pushed for an extension of the system to the Indian Ocean. One Australian scientist, Dr Phil Cummins, presented "evidence that an Indian Ocean tsunami was inevitable, though unpredictable in terms of timing, and posed a grave threat to many countries". In October 2003, at a meeting of the UN tsunami group in Wellington, New Zealand, Cummings "pushed for formal expansion of the international network into the Indian Ocean" but his proposal was rejected on the grounds that it was beyond the "terms of reference" of the Pacific group. (Andrew Revkin, How Scientists and Victims Watched Helplessly, New York Times, 31 December 2004)

The number of ‘natural’ disasters occurring internationally has been rising sharply – from about 100 a year in the early 1960s to around 500 a year in the early 2000s. (Andrew Revkin, The Future of Calamity, New York Times, 2 January) Earthquakes and tsunamis have not necessarily become more frequent, though deforestation and devastation of the environment have increased the incidence of both flooding and drought. Every year, disasters now affect over 200 million people, two thirds of whom live in underdeveloped countries where poverty and the rotten social system makes them more vulnerable. Last year, even a UN Development Programme (UNDP) report questioned the term ‘natural’ disaster (UNDP, Reducing Disaster Risk, February 2004). The human impact of earthquakes, cyclones or floods, and so on, varies enormously between rich and poor countries.

The effects of earthquakes, for instance, make this clear. In advanced capitalist countries, as on the west coast of the United States and in Japan, technology is used to ensure that most buildings can withstand major quakes. Money is spent on emergency planning to minimise the effects of quakes, through suspending public transport, for instance. On the other hand, many vulnerable cities in underdeveloped countries are ‘rubble in waiting’. In December 2003, an earthquake (6.8 on the Richter scale) destroyed the city of Bam in Iran, killing over 30,000 people. A more violent shock (8.0) on the Japanese island of Hokkaido in September 2003 merely caused a few injuries. An earthquake in Algeria (6.2) in May 2003 killed over 3,000 people, while a more violent quake (7.0) that shook northwest Japan in the same month killed no one.

Tehran is approximately the same size as Los Angeles and is located on similar geological fault lines. It is estimated that a 7.5 quake in Los Angeles might kill 50,000 people, but in Tehran, a similar quake would kill over a million.

Hit by catastrophe, rich and poor are just as unequal as in every other area of life.

Imperialist manoeuvres

COLIN POWELL ANGRILY rejected the charge from Jan Egelund, head of UN humanitarian operations, that the US, which initially offered only $15 million and then $50 million, was stingy. Yet Bush was spending around $40 million on his inaugural celebrations. Blair’s government initially offered only £1 million. Under massive public pressure to give adequate and generous support to the those affected by the tsunami, the US, Britain and other advanced capitalist states quickly increased their promises. There was, as one commentator put it, a tsunami of hypocrisy as governments tried to outbid one another in ‘generosity’. Judging by previous performance, however, it is doubtful that anything like these amounts will actually be sent to the regions concerned. After the Bam earthquake in Iran in 2003, for instance, governments promised over $1 billion aid – yet so far, only $17 million has actually been paid.

The total amount of government and private disaster aid now promised is in excess of $8 billion. Even this, pales in comparison with the vast amounts being spent by the US on the war in Iraq – currently over $4.5 billion a month. The US superpower’s military budget now exceeds $400 billion a year.

Emergency aid was desperately needed for survival by millions around the Indian Ocean in the form of food and water, shelter, medical treatment, medicines, etc. People also need cash and supplies to replace houses, fishing equipment, and other means of life. But it was clear from the beginning, that the governments of the region were incapable of organising effective relief operations. Even under ‘normal’ conditions, the region’s infrastructure is completely inadequate, especially in the rural and coastal areas. Governments are linked to ruling elites, to capitalist landlords and the tops of the military, and are incapable of responding to the needs of workers, poor farmers and small traders. At every level, politicians and bureaucrats are corrupt, through and through, and will divert aid money and steal relief supplies to enrich themselves. Inevitably, they will attempt to take control of reconstruction funds in order to increase their wealth and power.

The workers and poor farmers are the only force which can direct relief and reconstruction in the interests of the people. Relief aid should be directed by elected councils of workers, without any discrimination between different ethnic, religious, caste and other groups. Similarly, reconstruction should be under the control of elected workers’ councils, to guard against corruption and ensure rebuilding meets the needs of workers and other toilers. This demand has been raised in Sri Lanka by the United Socialist Party (section of the Committee for a Workers’ International). Inevitably, this class approach points to a more fundamental transformation of society.

While proclaiming its humanitarian aid mission, US imperialism is hypocritically seeking to exploit the disaster to strengthen its strategic position in the Indian Ocean. Moreover, regional governments – in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India – are all manoeuvring to turn the situation to their advantage.

After its loss of prestige in Iraq, US imperialism attempted to recover some of its ‘soft’ power. "The US-led war in Iraq was highly unpopular, particularly among Asia’s vast Muslim population", commented the International Herald Tribune. "Playing a leading role in the current crisis – more money, more debt relief – could bolster US businesses… given Asia’s economic potential and the countless millions of dollars in profit executives can expect to earn here, more aid may be in order". The US aid effort, commentated the San Francisco Chronicle (6 January) is a "crucial weapon in a battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims in Southern Asia and in much of the rest of the Muslim world".

Kudos gained by the US from its aid effort, however, will be short lived. From the start, it was obvious that US military support for the relief operations of regional regimes is aimed at strengthening the long term strategic presence of US imperialism in the region. After supporting governments whose stability has been threatened by the disaster, the US will later be requesting reciprocal favours, especially for bases and facilities.

In both Indonesia and Sri Lanka, the tsunami struck regions where there has been a prolonged struggle for independence, by the Aceh people in Indonesia and the Tamils in the north of Sri Lanka. When disaster struck there was, in both cases, spontaneous cooperation between the contending communities in a common effort to save lives and provide relief. In both cases, however, the governments immediately tried to militarise the relief operation, using it as a cover to attack the forces fighting for independence. In Sri Lanka, the United Socialist Party has played an outstanding role in opposing militarisation of relief, demanding workers’ control of relief and reconstruction, and striving to maintain class unity against ethnic divisions.

Reports from Sri Lanka and analysis of the situation in Indonesia can be found on the CWI’s website:

Debt hypocrisy

THE TSUNAMI DISASTER turned the spotlight on the ‘normal’ everyday conditions of the affected countries – a slow-motion tsunami, not a natural shockwave but the unbearable pressure of capitalism, which continuously extracts profit and interest payments from the labouring poor. The extent of the exploitation is measured by the debt crisis, which arises from indebtedness to private banks, Western governments, and agencies like the World Bank, which operate on behalf of global capitalism. Between them, five of the affected Indian Ocean countries owe $300 billion in foreign debts. Their annual repayments amount to around $32 billion, more than ten times the tsunami assistance currently promised.

Shamed by the worldwide public attention being focused on these debts, the main creditor countries have been forced to declare a moratorium on debt repayments for the Indian Ocean countries. But what use is a temporary reprieve? Western banks, governments and international agencies should immediately cancel all outstanding debts of underdeveloped countries. Strangulation by debt does not merely affect the countries hit by the tsunami disaster. All underdeveloped countries are affected. Altogether they are forced to repay $230 billion a year to the advanced capitalist countries.

There is a flood of statistics now. "In the next hour", writes Kevin Watkins, director of UNDP Human Development Report, "more than a thousand children under five will die from illnesses linked to poverty. Half of them will be African – a death toll equivalent to two tsunamis a month". (Guardian, 17 January) Reviewing the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, a new report states: "Sub-Saharan Africa, most dramatically, has been in a downward spiral of Aids, resurgent malaria, falling food output per person, deteriorating shelter conditions and environmental degradation". (Investing in Development, UNDP)

The UN’s solution? Major Western aid donors should increase aid as a share of their national income from the current miserly 0.23% to 0.44% in 2005 and a magnificent 0.54% by 2015. In reality, there is little chance of such an increase actually taking place. But even if there were a substantial increase in aid, it would not transform the conditions of the masses in the underdeveloped countries – without a fundamental change in the structure of society.

Western aid is always provided on terms aimed at creating more favourable conditions for the multi-national banks and corporations, to create new fields of investment and expanding markets. Undoubtedly, the advanced capitalist countries exert pressure to ‘modernise’ on the national capitalists of the underdeveloped countries. The promotion of neo-liberal policies, however, has never deterred the Western powers from collaborating with military dictatorships and repressive regimes, as in Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Nor has the West succeeded in eliminating corruption, or ‘crony capitalism’, which is endemic to capitalism everywhere.

Despite the benefits of many individual aid projects, Western aid in general serves to strengthen the neo-imperialist grip of the Western powers over the semi-developed and poor countries. The problems of economic backwardness will only begin to be solved when the working class and other oppressed strata overthrow their oppressors and take society into their own hands. Only then, through socialist policies and in collaboration with the working class of the advanced countries, will real progress be possible.

Social transformation

"THE LEVEL OF need exposed by the tsunami demonstrates that humanitarian generosity, however admirable and necessary, is not a long-term solution", writes Ignatio Ramonet, The World Turned Upside Down (Le Monde Diplomatique, January 2005). "Emotion is no substitute for policy. Each new disaster reveals in detail the structural suffering of the poorest, who are the everyday victims of the unequal, unfair distribution of the world’s wealth. If we really want to reduce the destruction caused by natural disasters, we must look for permanent solutions, including the compensatory redistribution of resources to benefit all of the planet’s population".

Ramonet is correct in pointing to the need for a structural solution. But within the framework of capitalism, his call for "compensatory redistribution" is completely utopian. Moreover, the policies he proposes are, compared with the chasm of global inequality, extremely limited. "To build a fairer world", he says, "it seems necessary to establish an international value added tax. The idea of a global tax levied on foreign exchange transactions (the Tobin tax), on arms sales or on the consumption of non-renewable energy…" The imperialist powers will never agree to a tax on arms sales. On the other hand, the burden of any tax on the consumption of fossil fuels, were such a measure ever to be adopted, would ultimately fall on working-class consumers. Regarding a Tobin tax, it cannot be ruled out that in the future, under conditions of world economic crisis, capitalist governments could impose a tax on foreign exchange transactions, especially to placate public anger at speculative activity. Any such taxes, however, would be raised by the capitalist class of the major economies according to their own methods and for their own purposes.

During the post-war upswing, when there were relatively high levels of taxation in the advanced countries, with a limited redistributive element, there were historically high levels of social spending. While raising the living standards of many sections of workers, such spending did not eliminate the class differences within capitalist society. Moreover, Keynesian or ‘social market’ policies were adopted by the capitalist class under pressure from the Stalinist states of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which constituted a rival social system, not socialist, but based on the planned economy. Since the collapse of the Stalinist states, capitalism has swung back to the free-market model, once again sharpening the class polarisation of society. In this period of a global neo-liberal offensive, there is no prospect of a global redistribution of wealth being achieved through reformist taxation. There can be no long-term, ‘structural’ solution on the basis of capitalism.

The tsunami catastrophe highlights the need for socialist economic planning on a world scale. Natural resources and the means of production must be taken out of the hands of multi-national corporations and global banks and nationalised under democratic workers’ control and management. Only then will the needs of the overwhelming majority of humanity be satisfied, and the environment protected for future generations.

Commenting on the upsurge of solidarity and financial support for those hit by the tsunami, Timothy Garton Ash refers to the development of "moral globalisation" with "citizens of rich countries identifying with people far away and see[ing] themselves as having some moral obligation towards them". (What Will Be Left? Guardian, 6 January) "The ‘imagined community’ of strangers to whom we feel some ties of obligation is no longer confined to our own nation state… There are compelling reasons… for now aiming at an imagined community of the world".

Undoubtedly, there was a remarkable heightening of consciousness about the injustice of the global economic system – though Garton Ash appears oblivious to the long tradition of working-class internationalism and solidarity transcending the boundaries of the capitalist nation state. But in the response to the tsunami, Garton Ash sees a strengthening of the last remaining "project of the left": "To be on the side of the poor, the oppressed and the exploited today must mean to attack the greatest inequality of our time – between the rich North… and the poor South". After the tsunami of spontaneous solidarity, "what will be left?" It will be, he says, the "oldest, boldest dream of the left" – that men and women will be brothers and sisters the world over.

The disaster, as Garton Ash observes, aroused strong feelings of international solidarity, especially among young people. But the political thinking of many has already gone beyond his leftish humanitarianism. Many are angrily questioning the capitalist order and beginning to look for an alternative form of society. They are increasingly looking towards socialist ideas, because socialism (based on workers’ democracy and economic planning) still offers the only coherent, viable alternative to capitalism. The solidarity of those moving in this direction is not with the ‘poor South’, which includes the capitalist tyrants and exploiters of the region, but with the region’s workers, poor farmers and the dispossessed. In collaboration with the working class of the advanced countries, they will provide the forces to transform the planet.


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