Elliott School panel discusses tsunami aftermath

With December’s Asian tsunami sliding into the inside pages of newspapers, Elliott School of International Affairs professors discussed challenges facing the ravaged nations at a town hall meeting Tuesday night.

Elliott School Dean Harry Harding moderated the panel, which consisted of faculty members Ray Williamson, Shawn McHale, Elizabeth Chacko, Stephen Commins and Leon Fuerth. The group examined various factors in Southeast Asia’s reconstruction and touched on political, economic and social issues for the region.

The professors also presented the latest satellite images of the nations worst affected by the gigantic wave. Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India were the hardest hit nations, and a combined death toll for the region is estimated at more than 290,000.

“There is a widespread perception … that the problem is over,” Harding said. “The problems created by the tsunami are just beginning.”

Williamson, a research professor of space policy and international affairs, presented information on the use of satellite imaging in the affected areas. The “very sophisticated digital cameras in space” took many before-and-after aerial photos of the tsunami-affected areas that Williamson presented to the audience.

“(The pictures) help planners figure out, okay what are we going to do about this, how are we going to get people in and out,” he said.

Chacko, an associate professor of geography and international affairs who was on the west coast of India when the wave hit, said Sri Lanka has already lost $120 million to $150 million in tourism revenue.

In addition to revenue loss, affected nations saw a sharp increase in “trauma-induced miscarriages,” she said. The nations still badly need doctors and medical help, she added.

“It is one thing that they do not have, that the developed world can give the less developed world,” Chacko said.

Parts of Southeast Asia will also need to focus on rebuilding social and political systems, said McHale, director of the Asian Studies program.

“The lack of trust between the governments in power and the people” is greatly affecting relief and reconstruction,” he said.

Fuerth, former Vice President Al Gore’s national security adviser, spoke of the need for a global disaster information network that will alert nations about similar events in the future. He articulated similar views in an opinion piece in The New York Times last month.

“Half of the victims were children who came running to the shore after the first wave retreated to gather the fish that were there” said Fuerth, who added that a warning system could have saved lives.

Commins, an adjunct professor and senior human development specialist for the World Bank’s Human Development Network, remarked on the role of non-governmental organizations helping in the relief and reconstruction efforts.

The NGO response has been enormous, said Commins, who added that in order to be effective, the agencies need to “reduce overhead, duplication and waste … focus on what the organization does best … and work with local partners.”

He added, “It’s not simply building houses or streets. It’s rebuilding livelihoods.”

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