Nature’s revenge?

The religious, irrational and reactionary who argued that Asia's poor brought the tsunami upon themselves.

Mischa Moselle

Topics Politics

The quake that struck Asia on Boxing Day is thought to have been so powerful that it caused the Earth to wobble on its axis for several seconds. This was the work of nature, rather than the result of any human activity. That fact hasn’t stopped the religious, the irrational and the reactionary attempting to come to terms with the disaster by blaming mankind, and in some cases even blaming the victims themselves.

Some Muslims in Sri Lanka have studied satellite imagery of the waves just before they struck the country, and claim to have found the name of God written in Arabic (1). Conspiracy theorists argue that the quake was the result of an experimental bomb. Others were suspicious about the fact that it came exactly a year to the day since the earthquake in Bam, Iran. No doubt Nostradamus, the Bible Code and the grassy knoll will all be invoked shortly.

It’s difficult to tell how much of Aceh remains intact, but it’s also hard to know what was there in the first place. According to official figures Aceh was home to some 3.9 million people, around 30 per cent of them living in poverty and with an average per head GDP of some US$980. That last figure is distorted, since much of it will represent revenues from the region’s oil and gas fields – money that doesn’t tend to stay in Aceh.

For the Muslim scholars of Sri Lanka, God sent the wave because tourism had led the island to sinfulness. But for some other commentators, the fishing and rice-farming poor suffered because they had not been suitably Green.

The WWF Asia-Pacific director Isabelle Louis said that ‘Healthy ecosystems can save lives’. She added: ‘Places that had healthy coral reefs and intact mangroves, which act as natural buffers, were less badly hit by the tsunami than those where the reefs had been damaged and the mangroves ripped out and replaced by prawn farms and poorly planned beachfront hotels.’

WWF has called for help in rebuilding small local fisheries, and warned that industrial-scale fishing fleets could ransack Asia’s seas. Given that regional fisheries are currently suffering from the perception that the aftermath of the tsunami could leave fish stocks polluted, huge yields seem rather unlikely. In any case, don’t Sri Lankans deserve the chance of economic development through the adoption of large-scale industry?

An article on OpenDemocracy also argues that coral reefs might have provided some protection against the tsunami. One coral scientist cited says: ‘In Sri Lanka almost all coral reefs that could have protected the coast were long ago smashed apart with crowbars and used to make quicklime. In Indonesia they were killed by fishermen’s bombs and cyanide. In Seychelles and Maldives they died from global warming. And in India all of the above plus sewage and mud from erosion after deforestation.’ (2) The poor are being taken to task for trying to make a living. In the old adage, the goal of development was the rather modest ‘teach a man to fish’. It seems that even that is now too ambitious.

The argument of the OpenDemocracy article is that human activity is a far greater threat to the planet than any tsunami, and that the human life lost is insignificant compared to recent manmade damage to the environment:

‘Huge and devastating as it was, the seaquake of 26 December 2004 makes little difference to the sum of human life on Earth. Currently, every year 83million more people smell the air on planet Earth than pass away. That’s an extra 227,400 humans every day. The lives lost in the tsunami were replaced with fresh babies in a few hours.

‘By contrast, many other species are on a real downer. Just 70 years after being discovered, humanity’s closest living relative – the Bonobo chimpanzee – is on the verge of extinction. More than 15,000 other species – including one in three amphibians, one in eight birds and a quarter of mammals – are talking to Mr Bones too.’

As though the lives lost in Asia are like some entry in a ledger: 157,000 dead in one column, but 227,400 new births in another, so that’s all right then. So long as the monkeys don’t suffer.

While it would be tempting to think of such views as on the fringe, they do carry some clout. According to newspaper reports, the Sri Lankan government is planning to enforce tough laws banning new beachfront developments and illegal beach shacks.

Mischa Moselle is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

(1) See image at

(2) Tsunami coming for us all, Caspar Henderson

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Topics Politics


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