The world must not fail the victims of the tsunami

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The Independent Online

It seems remarkable in this age of instant communication that, two weeks after the tsunami struck, the death toll is still rising. The British toll seems likely to end up 10 times higher than last week's official figures, while the United Nations now estimates the total number killed at around 150,000.

The scale of the disaster has appeared to grow remorslessly and constantly from the hours after the moment, just before 8am local time on 26 December, that people in Sumatra felt the earth shake.

This is not a case, then, of British journalists focusing exclusively on the fate of one or two British citizens caught up in a disaster that principally affects foreigners. Many, many nations have lost hundreds of people, and their grief and sympathy is shared. It is becoming increasingly obvious, too, that some of that grief could have been saved if governments around the world, including our own, and international organisations had been better prepared for the unexpected.

It may seem obvious now, but it is worth emphasising the point while the sense of urgency engendered by the Indian Ocean tsunami is still fresh in the mind. As we report today, the anguish felt by the British families of those lost in the disaster has been intensified by the disorganisation of attempts to identify the bodies. The Foreign Office seems to have failed to take up the offer of help early enough. The image of body bags with labels marked in washable ink that have been rendered unreadable is particularly harrowing.

This is, however, part of a much larger failure of planning and systems. The relief efforts that have been so quickly and generously funded could have relayed help to where it was needed faster if regional governments and the United Nations had been better prepared. Before that came the failure to warn people, especially in Sri Lanka three hours from the epicentre, that a tsunami was probably on the way. Another image that tells a vivid story is that of geologists in Hawaii telephoning numbers that rang out unanswered.

In an era when revolutions can be co-ordinated by text message, as in the Philippines in 2001, it is a defect of human organisation that communications technology cannot be used effectively.

National governments and the UN need to prepare for disasters without knowing what kind or when, but on the assumption that they can happen during holiday periods and outside office hours. There is now plenty of anecdotal evidence that the all-important early phase of the response to the disaster was hampered by the fact that so many government offices were closed for Christmas. The flexible-response doctrine that is gaining ground in military thinking should be applied to civil contingency planning.

The sense of urgency of the response to the Asian tsunami needs to be sustained and channelled into what, in normal times, is an unglamorous, under-resourced business. Disaster planning tends to be a bureaucratic backwater - there are always more pressing demands on public money and public officials' time.

Yet it should be possible for governments and the UN to learn from what went wrong and what is going right since the tremors were first felt. And for inspired individuals to use the worldwide determination to help to cajole and bully people into making more effective preparations for the next crisis.