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Jan 13th, 2005
Tsunami Disaster: When the experts say  


With an ever-climbing death toll, extraordinary public outpouring and continuing uncertainty surrounding the effectiveness of a massive international relief effort, Western’s academic and administrative experts stepped forward to offer some perspective with expert commentary over the past week.

Ted Garrard, Western's Vice-President (External), is Chair of the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy.

The outpouring of support from Canadians has been extraordinary, perhaps the most generous response by the Canadian public to any appeal in such a short period of time.

The challenges that charities face in accepting this outpouring of support have been significant as their phone lines and web sites have been clogged.

Donors therefore need to be realistic about when they will get their tax receipts and recognize that there will be costs to the charity for being able to process their donations.

Donors also need to be realistic about when the donations they have given will get to the people in need. Each of the charities has to work through international aid organizations and governments to make sure the funds are directed where they will be needed the most.

There is concern from some groups that this outpouring of support to tsunami relief will impact some other charities and hopefully this will not be the case.

I hope people will see the tsunami relief as a one time appeal and continue to donate to their traditional charities that rely on their support.

Slobodan Simonovic is Chair in Engineering at the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

The recent tragic disaster in south Asia has proved that everyone is vulnerable and that disasters of high magnitude are not reserved only for the places where they have been experienced in the past.
It is very clear that better understanding is the only way to deal with these extreme events.

Under better preparedness, I include predicting events, warning people in time and providing effective assistance.

In many cases the capacity of the regions is not sufficient and an integrated cooperative effort of multiple countries, regions and even the United Nations is required. This is the main thrust of the International Flood Initiative that I will be presenting in Kobe, Japan, January 10-22.

At the moment, help is urgently required to deal with the physical and human side of the disaster.

Tomorrow, different help will be needed – capacity building, better technical knowledge, transfer of technology, all aimed at better preparedness and timely prediction.

The Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction and our expertise, together with results of the research conducted under our support, could be of great help.

David Spencer is Professor of information & media studies, who specializes in the history of media.

After September 11, the media was criticized for acting as a cheerleader for Bush's policies. In the case of the tsunami, we're seeing media becoming part of the solution. It shows the power of the different forms of media, especially TV in this case, to touch people and raise awareness of the tragedy and how they can help.

I recently read a letter to the editor in one of Canada's national newspapers thanking the media for the extensive coverage of the tsunami disaster.

Journalists are not accustomed to such praise.

Western graduate Stephen Poloz is Senior Vice-President and Chief Economist of Export Development Canada.

According to a consensus of economists, growth in the region should be reduced by only a few tenths of a percentage point, less than during the SARS crisis, for example.

While these figures are reassuring, they should be interpreted cautiously, for a couple of reasons. First, economists’ calculations are based on assumptions about the damage.

They take the contribution to a country’s GDP of the affected region (a fact) and combine it with an estimate of that region’s lost GDP (a guess – an educated guess, to be sure, but a guess nonetheless).

To illustrate, the southern region of Thailand contributes about 10 per cent of Thailand’s GDP. Hypothetically, then, if 15-20 per cent of southern Thailand’s annual GDP were lost, then 1.5-2.0 per cent of Thailand’s annual GDP would be lost – but we can only guess at the 15-20 per cent, for now.

Second, the shock itself is still increasing in both magnitude and dimension. On the magnitude of the shock, recall that the early reports estimated that there were as few as 12,000 deaths.

Today, that number is over 150,000 and still rising.

If the economic impact is related to the number of deaths, then it is still growing. With regard to the dimensionality of the shock, relief agencies are now focusing on the risk of a massive outbreak of disease.

If this risk were realised, the economic disruption would be greater than current estimates – a whole new shock could be on the horizon.

All to say that we should not take too much comfort from these early estimates of the economic fallout. But there are positives, too. The level of aid is now in excess of $3 billion and still growing.

Some of this money will go to immediate everyday needs. However, the bulk will be available for the bigger clean-up and rebuilding. Rebuilding means investment, and the quickest way to get an economy up and moving again is an injection of new investment, particularly in infrastructure.

Canada has risen to the occasion in terms of aid, not surprisingly. Beyond the usual outpouring of support for people in trouble, Canada has strong cultural linkages to the region, and significant business interests, too.

Although our goods exports to the affected countries (India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand) are only about $2.2 billion per year, our imports from the region are about $6.6 billion.

Of this, we estimate that some 15-20 per cent represents intermediate goods – in other words, various companies in the region are embedded in Canadian companies’ global supply chains. Canadian companies have over $7 billion in assets on the ground in those countries, with about three-quarters of that total in Indonesia. So far, these interests look secure.

The bottom line? The Asian earthquake and tsunami were disasters of the first order. The human costs have been enormous and are still growing. Although early estimates of the economic costs look reassuring, we should at least be prepared for the risk of a worse outcome.

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