Joan Smith: Natural disasters are more deadly than terrorism

Governments are pouring more resources into the lesser of the two threats
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The Independent Online

When I was in Yogyakarta last year, not long after the tsunami devastated north-west Indonesia, I couldn't help keeping a wary eye on the nearby volcano. Heading out of the city to see the magnificent seventh-century Buddhist temple at Borobudur, I dutifully made notes about the various occasions Mount Merapi had erupted and wondered how hundreds of thousands of people could live next to it so calmly. Last weekend, some of them had reason to be grateful to Merapi, which has been sending menacing signals for weeks, forcing the Indonesian government to start preparing for an emergency.

What happened on Saturday was not the expected eruption but an earthquake, killing around 5,000 people and injuring 20,000; estimates are still rising and the UN has warned that the task faced by relief agencies is enormous. The disaster and the volcano's current activity are not directly related, but they are a reminder of how perilous life is in this and many other parts of the world. Two and a half years ago, more than 26,000 people died when an earthquake hit the ancient Iranian city of Bam, and that tragedy was dwarfed by the death toll in the Asian tsunami and last year's earthquake in Pakistan.

The number of dead and injured in these natural disasters has run into several hundreds of thousands in a period of less than three years. Last weekend's death toll in Java alone exceeds the number of people killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and has left another 200,000 homeless. Indonesia is no stranger to terrorism, having suffered two dreadful bombings in its premier holiday destination, Bali, and others in the capital city, Jakarta. The damage done to the country's tourist industry by terrorism is incalculable, yet the biggest threat people face is from shifting tectonic plates, not terrorist bombs.

This is true in many parts of the world, so why are governments pouring so much energy and resources into what is actually the lesser of the two threats? I am not seeking to minimise the horror of the terrorist attacks on London, Madrid, Casablanca and other cities, but I am arguing for a sense of proportion; there's no doubt in my mind that world leaders, including Tony Blair, are mesmerised by the so-called war on terror to the point where they are missing a chance to save thousands of lives in natural disasters.

Such events are not preventable but they are to some extent predictable. Last year, after the earthquake in Sumatra in March which killed 2,000 people, an article in Nature warned that Indonesia was at risk of another major disaster. It's happened in Java on this occasion, not Sumatra, but you didn't have to be a seismologist to know that another natural disaster was on the cards. It's the third to hit Indonesia in 18 months, but even with the authorities in Yogyakarta on high alert, it is clear that local doctors and hospitals have been overwhelmed with casualties.

Jan Egeland, the UN's emergency relief co-ordinator, said that many of the injured have crushed and severed limbs. "It's a race against the clock to save their lives," he warned. Newspapers and TV stations have shown harrowing scenes of injured people on drips in outdoor casualty stations, and the British government has pledged £3m in aid. Relief organisations have launched an appeal, which will be helped by the fact that so many foreign tourists visit Yogyakarta each year to see its fabulous royal palaces and the great temple complexes in the surrounding countryside.

But no matter how generous people are - and the response to the Asian tsunami last year demonstrates that they do respond swiftly - relief organisations are once again desperately trying to raise money after a catastrophic event. I've argued before that the international community needs to have dedicated funds in advance of natural disasters, an idea the Prime Minister seems to be coming round to, though more slowly than many of us would like.

Last summer, Mr Blair backed proposals to set up an international panel of experts which would advise governments on how to reduce casualties and damage caused by natural disasters. In November, the UN called for a central relief fund so it doesn't have to go round begging for money each time a disaster happens, arguing that it is over-stretched and under-funded. But one key country, the US, says it will not contribute, and progress on the proposal is frustratingly slow.

There was some good news from Yogyakarta yesterday when it was reported that Borobudur is intact, although the Prambanan Hindu temple complex has been badly damaged. As relief agencies struggle to get aid to the stricken region, the best monument to the dead would be a commitment by world leaders to prevent such grim scenes being repeated when the next natural disaster strikes.

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