Two devastating earthquakes cause much suffering and highlight the need to prepare better for future natural disasters.
Few could have imagined in the 16th century that we would have satellites in space, open-heart surgeries and infinite information in the palms of our hands. Yet every now and then, nature breaks the illusion that we have tamed it. This week, earthquakes hit Ecuador and Japan, unleashing death and devastation on a large scale.
Both earthquakes have lessons for our times. In Ecuador, the earthquake measured 7.8 on the Richter scale. It has already killed hundreds of people and injured many more. For thousands, food and other essentials are in short supply. Buildings, roads and bridges have been damaged. There are reports of looting and public disorder. Other countries have offered help. Venezuela and Mexico, neither of whom shares a border with Ecuador, were the first to offer substantial assistance.
In Japan, the earthquake hit Kyushu, its southwestern island, and measured 7.3 on the Richter scale. It succeeded another quake that measured 6.4. Roads, bridges and tunnels have suffered massive damage. At least 41 are dead and hundreds are wounded. Around 180,000 people are in temporary shelters and about 300,000 homes have no water. Electricity has been disrupted with more than 62,000 homes cut off from any power supply.
Big landslides have cut off remote villages. Heavy rains are compounding an already grim situation. About 25,000 Japanese troops are engaged in the rescue effort and the US military is offering assistance. Meanwhile, Toyota has suspended production because the quakes have disrupted the supply of parts. The car company’s fabled just-in-time production that relies on low inventory has been disrupted by the two earthquakes.
In both countries, earthquakes are not new phenomena. They form part of the Ring of Fire, a string of volcanoes and sites of seismic activity around the edges of the Pacific Ocean. Yet there are major differences. Ecuador is a former Spanish colony where conquistadores and Catholic priests did much to destroy local cultures. Until recently, the country has suffered from political volatility. Some of this volatility occurred because of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which interfered to install pliant military dictators all across Latin America.
Most of these dictators were descendants of conquistadores, owning much of the property of the region. They became champions of the free market in Latin America. During this era, the US held property rights to be inviolable. This meant that white elites of countries like South Africa or Ecuador had inviolable rights to the land that their forefathers had stolen from the natives. These mestizos were supposed to work hard, live frugally and work their way up the ladder of opportunity. To use an American expression, they were supposed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That they did not have boots leave aside bootstraps was irrelevant.
Today, Ecuador continues to suffer from high poverty and glaring inequality. The indigenous and mestizo population is still caught in a grinding struggle for survival. President Rafael Correa has been in power since 2007 and belongs to the democratic socialist tradition of Latin America. He has launched schemes to reduce poverty and curb the power of multinationals. Correa also likes to stand up to the US and has given asylum to Julian Assange who continues to live in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
Perhaps most importantly, Correa’s economics is anathema to the United States. He defaulted on debt payments of $3.2 billion in 2008 and 2009. Correa’s argument was that the securities that Ecuador had to repay were illegitimate. Ecuador is a more frequent defaulter than Argentina and Paraguay. For the last six years, Correa has run budget deficits and falling oil prices are pushing Ecuador’s economy over the edge. The earthquake could not have come at a worse time.
Japan is a much richer and more homogenous country than Ecuador. It has a long history of dealing with earthquakes and some of the most state of the art technologies to minimize damage in the case of seismic activity. The earthquake is causing much hardship in Japan, but there are no reports of looting. Unlike Ecuador, the social fabric of Japan is not fraying at a time of crisis. Even though the Japanese economy has long been in the doldrums, the country will absorb the losses inflicted by the earthquakes just as they have coped with the massive earthquake and ensuing tsunami of 2011.
The tragedies in Ecuador and Japan have three important lessons for us.
First, societies have to prepare better for natural disasters. Tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, droughts and fires have become only too commonplace in recent years. In 2015, floods devastated southern India. In particular, life in Chennai came to a complete standstill. Swirling waters full of debris, sewage and industrial effluents caused colossal damage and threatened to unleash epidemics in their aftermath.
In South America, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina suffered the worst flooding in 50 years. Apparently, the El Niño weather phenomenon was to blame. In addition to floods, fires caused tremendous damage in 2015. California and Australia suffer spectacular fires almost every year. It turns out that fires now burn earlier and longer. Last year, Indonesian forest fires were a global catastrophe that ended up generating more emissions per day than the US.
So far, societies have assumed that natural disasters are rare and have dealt with them on an ad hoc basis. Of course, there are exceptions like Japan. This island nation has designed some of the most impressive infrastructure on the planet despite the ever present risk of devastating seismic activity. Japan’s rescue and relief measures are world class as well. Other societies could learn from the Japanese.
For instance, both India and Brazil have slums and favelas that are not only vulnerable to floods or fires, but also to diseases and epidemics. To prepare better for disasters, human beings could do well to make changes in the way they live. Arguably, the biggest change has to come from those who are affluent. They are often wanton in their consumption of natural resources whether it is in the form of palatial mansions or Wabenzi luxuries. Even the poor will have to live differently. Houses in low lying catchment areas do not make sense. Similarly, remote homes in arid areas full of dry brush might be an invitation to disaster.
Second, disseminating knowledge and creating relief systems would help societies prepare better for natural disasters. Here, much of the world could learn a lot from Japan. If more buildings in Ecuador met standards that are common in Japan, fewer people would be crushed to death. The logistical exercise that Japan is currently engaging in is breathtaking and institutions in other countries could learn a lot from the Japanese response to natural crises.
Third, mitigating extreme inequality might help societies cope with natural disasters. In societies of masters and serfs, the former tend to wallow in luxury, while the latter start suffering from dejection and dependency. Unequal societies far too often lack social solidarity and find it difficult to cope with natural disasters. They are also unable to build institutions that deal with common interests and coping with floods, landslides or earthquakes becomes even more onerous as a result.
More than 7 billion human beings live on a planet with old perils such as volcanoes and earthquakes and new perils such as drying rivers and record floods. Perhaps the time has come to live a little differently, learn a bit more and create less unequal societies.
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