Whenever Burma hits the international news headlines, I think of author Amitav Ghosh. His 2002 historical novel, The Glass Palace, was my introduction to Burma’s recent history. It describes – with historical accuracy and detail – how the British colonised a land of prosperity in 1824 and left it an impoverished nation in 1948.
I was intrigued, therefore, to read an excellent op ed essay by Amitav Ghosh in The New York Times of 10 May 2008. Titled When Death Comes Ashore, it is a commentary on the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis that particularly hit Burma in recent days. Ghosh offers both comfort and worry.
The bad news, as he puts it, is that “for the rapidly growing countries that surround the Bay of Bengal there is an increasing urgency to find a way to protect themselves. They have experienced some of the world’s most devastating storms.”
He makes a strong call for cooperation among the countries who surround the Bay of Bengal, which means Bangladesh, Burma, India, (part of) Indonesia and Thailand.
As he says: “Nation-states tend to see their interests as being confined within their own borders. But the reality is that the people who live around the Bay of Bengal have a vital interest in common that they do not share with their compatriots in the hinterlands: they are joined by the furies (and let it be said also, the blessings) of that body of water.”
To me, the most important point he makes is about disaster preparedness, a topic we covered in some depth and detail in Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book that I co-edited last year.
“Recent experience has demonstrated in spectacular ways that rich, technologically advanced nations are not invulnerable to extreme weather. What has also been demonstrated, but more quietly, is that a nation need not be wealthy or technologically advanced to be well prepared for natural disasters.”
Ghosh talks about Mauritius, a small Indian Ocean island that meteorologists call a ‘cyclone factory’, which has “evolved a sophisticated system of precautions, combining a network of cyclone shelters with education (including regular drills), a good early warning system and mandatory closings of businesses and schools when a storm threatens.”
He adds: “Mauritius is a country that has learned, through trial and experience, that early warnings are not enough — preparation also demands public education and political will. In an age when extreme weather events are clearly increasing in frequency, the world would do well to learn from it.”
Let’s hope the Indian Ocean rim countries – especially those that share the Bay of Bengal’s blessings and lashings – would heed the celebrated Indian author’s call. After the 2004 tsunami, we saw a flurry of activity to set up high-tech and high cost early warning systems for future tsunamis. The United Nations and development donors huddled together in various exotic locations of our region to work out the details.
But I wrote in a SciDev.Net opinion piece in December 2005: “Setting up a state-of-the-art, high tech and high cost system is not a solution by itself. Because the most advanced early warning system in the world can only do half the job: alert governments and other centres of power (e.g. military) of an impending disaster. The far bigger challenge is to disseminate that warning to large numbers of people spread across vast areas in the shortest possible time“.
I called it the Long Last Mile (sorry, metric fans, it just doesn’t read right to say the last kilometre!), a phrase that I also used in the book chapter and the short film that I scripted for TVE Asia Pacific in 2007.
Read the full essay: Death Comes Ashore, By AMITAV GHOSH, in The New York Times, 10 May 2008
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