In the shadow of a volcano, under a nightfall that cannot hide the rising stench of death, Pariaman official Yuen Karnova recounts his district's toll from the earthquake that struck the Indonesian island of Sumatra on Sept. 30: at least 400 people believed dead, just some of what will probably be thousands of casualties from the quake; more than 10,000 buildings collapsed or condemned; a dozen or so villages wiped off the map by landslides. Pariaman, Karnova notes, is hardly a stranger to calamity. "Every natural disaster you can think of, it has happened here," he tells me. "Landslides, floods, volcano eruptions, earthquakes, even a tsunami. Some people ask me, Why don't you leave?" Karnova's mouth forms a smile that is not the least bit amused. "We are people of faith," he says, "and we must face up to these challenges."
But what a multitude of challenges has been unleashed upon the Asia-Pacific region in just a week's time. In late September, tropical storm Ketsana killed more than 160 people in Vietnam and nearly 300 in the Philippines, submerging 80% of Manila. Just hours before Sumatra was jolted, another earthquake triggered a tsunami that inundated the Samoan islands and Tonga, extinguishing some 180 lives. In the latest catastrophe, southern India was ravaged by some of the worst torrential rains in decades, killing around 300 people and leaving some 2 million others homeless.
The unrelenting drumbeat of bad news confirms what many have sensed for some time. First, the globe is being cursed with more natural calamities than before. Second, the distribution of disaster is unequal. A U.N. report released in May studied natural disasters between 1975 and 2007 and found not only that the frequency of catastrophe is increasing because of climate change, unsafe cities and environmental degradation, but also that the brunt of tragedy is borne by poor countries least equipped to deal with such misfortune. In 2008, 98% of natural disaster related fatalities occurred in Asia, according to the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-based research group. At a World Health Organization summit last month, health ministers from Southeast Asia announced that from 1998 to 2009, 750,000 people had perished from natural disasters in their region alone.
Some countries, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, are blighted by geography. But other disaster-prone nations like Japan manage to surmount these disadvantages. In some ways, natural disasters give these developed economies an excuse for technological improvement. So while Japan invests in high-tech skyscrapers designed to withstand the inevitable next earthquake, the West Sumatran capital of Padang which scientists long predicted would be shaken by a killer quake because it sits astride one of the world's most active fault lines was crowded with poorly built buildings that crumbled when the earth shuddered on Sept. 30. Similarly, in the Philippines, the vast flooding triggered by Ketsana was largely the result of insufficient drainage. In fact, the U.N. estimates that when equivalent populations in the Philippines and Japan endure the same number of tropical cyclones each year, 17 times more people perish in the Philippines than in Japan. The higher death tolls feed a vicious cycle: constantly struggling to recover from the latest storm or quake, developing countries have a harder time affording the disaster-prevention measures needed to mitigate nature's wrath.
Such discrepancies, subconsciously or not, affect the way we value life. A fair chunk of Bangladesh slides underwater, killing thousands, and it barely merits a mention in the global media. A dozen people die in a California wildfire, and it's front-page news.
That inequality struck me as I surveyed the wreckage of Pariaman, where nearly every building had been twisted into a carcass of impossible angles. Unlike New Orleans or other Western locales ravaged by nature, Pariaman will quickly fade from the vocabulary of global disaster. Yet the tales there are no less tragic.
At Pariaman's remote hamlet of Pulau Koto, which had been interred by a 30-ft.-high (10 m) landslide, I met Amin Dullah, a 40-year-old fishmonger, who crouched under a tarp with his 5-year-old daughter. When the tremor struck, Dullah fled his house with his 2-year-old son Fajar. But he was soon inundated by two waves of earth and lost his grip on the boy. Two days later, Fajar's body was found. Only six of Dullah's 31 neighbors survived. Marooned in such an isolated place, they had no idea that tragedy extended far beyond their own community. Learning that thousands probably perished in the quake, Dullah hugged his remaining child in his arms. "Compared to many people, I am lucky," he told me. "At least I have someone left." And somehow, in the flickering light of a dying candle, with his village turned into a mass grave just feet away, Dullah managed a small smile.