After the Waves

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A man searches for his relatives at Ban Muang temple, which has become a makeshift morgue for hundreds of bodies waiting to be indentified in Khao Lak, Thailand

The death toll from Sunday's tsunamis that roared across the Indian Ocean passed 70,000 overnight Tuesday. The surging waters targeted wealthy Western tourists at Thai resorts as viciously as it targeted poor fisher-folk of the eastern Indian coastline, affected both Muslim separatists in Indonesia's Aceh province and the army sent to quell their rebellion, buffeted those parts of Sri Lanka controlled by the government and those in the hands of the Tamil rebels.

Now the most urgent task is to contain the tragedy. Millions have been left homeless, often desperate for food and clean water. The world's largest-ever relief effort is required first to stave off the threat of disease, which could kill as many as the waves, and then to rebuild shattered lives and local economies in the ten worst-affected countries. The efficacy of the aid operation, which demands an all-too-rare level of international cooperation and common purpose, could yet spare tens of thousands more lives. But long-term aid will be required to set those societies back on their feet, and non-governmental organizations are concerned that after the initial rush of aid, the long term needs may be forgotten. Still, the governments of the wealthier countries are responding quickly, with the U.S. adding $20 million to its initial $15 million pledge after UN relief officials complained that the industrialized world was being too tight-fisted.

Governments and banks are only beginning to make their assessment of the economic impact of the tsunamis, with current estimates running to $10 billion. Huge swathes of farmland have been scoured by the salt water and may take years to recover. Thailand's tourism economy — a primary foreign exchange earner — has been devastated: While a natural disaster wouldn't discourage tourists from returning in the way that a terror strike might, its tourism infrastructure has been badly damaged and, more importantly, so have many of its pristine beaches and coral reefs.

Some observers have expressed the hope that the impact of the disaster on both sides of the conflicts in places such as Aceh and Sri Lanka might help bring the warring factions closer together. History certainly offers examples in which the human solidarity across lines of political conflict prompted by a natural disaster have eased the climate between hostile nations — most recently in the help sent by Greece to Turkey in the wake of killer earthquakes. But there are also historical examples, such as the social upheavals that followed massive earthquakes in Nicaragua in 1973, in which natural disasters have sharpened conflict, particularly when aggrieved parties believe there is a bias in the distribution of relief aid. Already there are signs of such a dynamic emerging in Aceh, with some villagers accusing the Indonesian military of directing aid to families of soldiers and its allies in the population. But in Sri Lanka, where the two sides have been locked into an often rocky negotiation process for years, disaster relief may provide a boost to the troubled peace effort.

Discussion of preventative action for the future has come to focus on implementing a tsunami early warning system in the Indian Ocean of the type that exists in the Pacific. Tens of thousands of lives might have been spared had the danger been communicated to Sri Lanka and India immediately after the undersea earthquake, which would have given two hours to warn coastal residents to move to higher ground. On Sunday, there were no such communication channels — and no evacuation protocols in place. Still, the technology exists to provide early warnings, but not to stave off the forces of nature. Indeed, while global warming had no part in Sunday's events, studies of climate change have nonetheless warned that in the decades ahead, the planet's oceans will produce increasingly volatile, and deadly weather patterns along the coastlines. Sunday's deadly waves offered a sharp reminder of just how vulnerable the tens of millions of people who make their lives and livelihoods along the earth's coastlines may be in the decades to come.