Disasters: Why the World Waits

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(fair use blah blah posted 08:19 MST 2000/03/05)

"Friday, 3 March, 2000, 12:23 GMT

Disasters: Why the world waits

Awaiting rescue in Mozambique By BBC News Online's Emma Batha

The sight of five helicopters struggling to save thousands of people clinging to tree tops in the Mozambique floods has caused anger around the world.

The rains started about three weeks before the international relief effort got seriously under way.

Shepard Foreman, director of the Center on International Co-operation in New York which looks at disaster management, says the response has been "absolutely shocking."

If there had been an avalanche in Switzerland with 10 skiers buried there would have been 10 helicopters out looking for them immediately, he says.

But Mozambique is hardly the first such catastrophe. Last year there were earthquakes in Turkey, Greece and Taiwan and major floods in Venezuela, India and Vietnam.

Natural disasters have killed more than 110,000 people over the last two years and millions more have lost homes and livelihoods.

The United Nations which, ironically, has just completed an International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction, reports the number of catastrophes has trebled over the last 10 years.

Even if earthquakes and cyclones are unpredictable in themselves, they happen with a predictable regularity - so why is the response frequently so slow?

There appear to be two main problems - the piecemeal approach to funding and a lack of co-ordination between governments and aid agencies.


Appeals are only made once there is a crisis, which means the money starts coming in after it is needed for the initial mass evacuations.

Donations then pour in at a higher rate than the agencies spend it, but tail off once the catastrophe drops out of the headlines, even though there are usually still thousands of homeless to feed and shelter.

Fabrizio Gentiloni of the UN's Rapid Disaster Response Branch says:

''The root cause of the delay in responding is that cash is frequently unavailable at the beginning and you have to scream for help from donors.

''You have to have money to rent the helicopters and arrange charters, but there is often a gap between the pledge being made and the donation arriving.''

What the UN and many other bodies would like to see is a pool of money made available at the beginning of each year for emergencies.

A few countries - Italy, Norway and the UK - have started paying up front, but the amounts are still very small.

Peter Walker of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says: ''The way we respond is incredibly ad hoc, which is daft in a way because we can say at least two thirds of what our needs will be.

''For example, I'm 90% certain we will have a relief operation in Bangladesh every year for floods.''

Rapid response

The Mozambique floods have once again raised the question of whether an international rapid response unit should be set up which could fly into any crisis.

Although the UN has a rescue co-ordinating office in Geneva, it has no official rescue service.

However, aid workers say that while an international unit is an attractive idea on paper, it is an impractical one.

First of all there is the question of speed. In an earthquake around 90% of people saved are dug out within the first 24 hours. The fastest response is from the immediate area.

Mr Walker says it makes more sense for each government to set up a really thorough emergency response system involving strong regional co-operation and a solid plan for co-ordinating with international relief agencies.


Unfortunately, Mozambique's problem has been exacerbated by the fact that it could not call on most of its neighbours for support.

Zimbabwe and Botswana do not have enormous resources to spare at the best of times and have been dealing with their own flood crises.

On top of this Zimbabwe has sent many of its helicopters to fight in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But Mr Walker says that although the world is focusing on the shortage of helicopters, they are not the real solution for flood operations - they make the news because they are ''photogenic''.

The most cost-effective way of saving people in floods is with boats which, unlike helicopters, can easily be stored in areas prone to flooding for future emergencies.

The plight of Mozambique has also sparked talk of making more use of armies in rescue operations.

But aid agencies say there is reluctance to do this because it costs three to four times more to use a military unit than a civilian unit.

A few governments have started including a certain amount of relief work in their military budgets.

However, Mr Gentiloni says the solution is not setting up yet another UN body or using armies, but strengthening co-ordination between existing rescue agencies.


Looking to the future, one thing Mozambique can be sure of is that there will be more floods.

Once the waters have subsided it will have to consider whether to spend precious dollars on setting up early warning systems and building shelters.

Bangladesh, which is flooded every year, is proof low-tech prevention does save lives.

In 1991, flooding in Bangladesh killed at least 140,000 people. The 1998 floods were more widespread, but fewer than 1,000 people died.

This is partly because they have built cyclone shelters and artificial hills and set up an early warning system. When a storm is coming in thousands of Red Cross volunteers are mobilised with megaphones up and down the coast and further inland.

One of the reasons the international response in Mozambique was slow is that there is no warning system.

The second wave of flooding was due to rivers bursting their banks after heavy rainfalls upstream in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Yet there is no system between these countries for sharing information about rising water levels.

A river basin agreement would help forecast potential crises and improve the speed of rescue operations.

But such initiatives will be too late for the hundreds, if not thousands, of Mozambicans currently facing death in the floodwaters."

-- firefly (forest@calm.dot), March 05, 2000


Just a side thought:

The impact of natural disasters on human populations has increased because human populations are denser than ever. Wherever the ability of the land to sustain its population reaches the margin (as in most of the Third World) population die off becomes inevitable, whether through famine, flood, diesease or drought.

This is what Malthus discovered and wrote about. This process is well researched, well understood, and well accepted when applied to wildlife populations. But this same insight is rarely applied to human populations. This is the face of overpopulation. It always looks like this. It always will.

I strongly beleive it is morally correct and proper to send food and other aid. It is only human to aid the dying. Compassion is required of us. But we should never believe that this is more than a fine gesture that might save some individuals, but completely ducks the main issue. Life at the margins is always close to death.

-- Brian McLaughlin (brianm@ims.com), March 05, 2000.

Thanks for your response, Brian. So, would you go so far as to say child-bearing should be a privilege and not a right? It would seem to be more humane in the long run....

-- firefly (forest@calm.dog), March 05, 2000.

I would *not* go so far as to say child-bearing should be a privilege. One has a right to control over one's self, one's life, and one's body. Anything else is slavery. But there are plenty of solutions to try, short of such draconian measures.

For example, access to contraceptives is an *extension* of one's control over one's life and body. That is a much better solution than diminishing the personal right to reproduce. Tax law could be structured to discourage large famillies without outlawing them.

Also, we should be paying more attention to how we will feed future generations. I believe that strong laws regarding custodianship of land are well within reason. For example, topsoil should be measurably improved by farming it, not destroyed. Preservation of topsoil should be upheld by both incentives and punishments. Other resources need to be husbanded better.

Population management is one area where far too little public discussion is going on.

-- Brian McLaughlin (brianm@ims.com), March 05, 2000.

Your solutions to the over-population problem sound good in theory but they seem to fail in practice. Apparently Georgia has recently passed a law permitting women who don't want their babies to be able to leave them with the hospital where they were born until they can be adopted. Surely Georgia has access to contraceptives and information about them?

As for limiting family size, we've come several strides in that direction in North America in the past twenty years, but would you believe the province of Quebec is paying women to have more babies? They have control of their own immigration (which might help to explain how some of the folks entering the U.S. at Christmas got into Canada), they appear to have different restrictions, and they encourage their own population to reproduce more. Kind of like the direction in which Austria might be heading.

"Also, we should be paying more attention to how we will feed future generations. I believe that strong laws regarding custodianship of land are well within reason. For example, topsoil should be measurably improved by farming it, not destroyed. Preservation of topsoil should be upheld by both incentives and punishments. Other resources need to be husbanded better.

"Population management is one area where far too little public discussion is going on."

And I believe departments of Agriculture in various governments are making your points within their own bodies. Numerous gov reports and reports to gov examine these various questions, but many of them are so politically sensitive that they don't get much public visibility nor attention.

I know the "quality of the mainstream media" is being discussed on another thread here, but I do believe the net will help/is helping many more people to go as close to the original source as possible. I've personally been frustrated with media non-reporting or mis-reporting for a long while and learned long ago to look deeper than the headline and its accompanying blurb. With the net, word is getting out more easily.

Which takes us right back to y2k, of course. I followed TB's links to original sources, but I had also read many other original sources (Yourdon's book was not one of them) prior to finding TB. And, for the record, I do not believe those original sources were all wrong. If you can't believe an original source, directly from a variety of experts, who can you believe? All you can do is look at the results.

For me, the results of disasters that wipe-out thousands is unconscionable. I posted this thread because I was seeing articles on the wires about the floods, the approaching cyclone, the increasing disaster when it struck, for over a week before my mainstream news sources began to report it. And it was several days after that before the rest of the world began sending in help. This article helped to explain the why. It, with your first response, make the situation look hopeless. Things never seem to change. Prove me wrong. Please.

-- firefly (forest@calm.dot), March 05, 2000.

>> Your solutions to the over-population problem sound good in theory but they seem to fail in practice. <<

My own study of this subject suggests that through most of human history, when a culture expands to the limit of the productive capacity of its homeland, it develops folkways designed to keep its population within the limits of available food. This can be accomplished by custom, law or taboo.

For example, many cultures adapt by sanctioning late marriage. Others adapt by exposing infants or practising inducing miscarriage through toxic herbs. Or access to land was restricted by primogeniture. There are any number of ways to get to the equilibrium point.

But for most of the past 500 years, technological change has been sweeping aside barriers to population growth, and with them has swept aside the concepts that grew up with recognized limits. One of the most potent myths of US culture is the myth of no limits. We are exporting that myth worldwide. It is a pretty seductive idea, you bet!

As a result, my own personal belief is that human populations will undergo a collapse at some future date, possibly as early as mid-21st century, depending on how well we deal with the oil/coal situation. It may well come much later. We are an inventive species, no doubt about it. And so long as we can feed more, we will breed more.

I'd like to prove you wrong. I can't.

-- Brian McLaughlin (brianm@ims.com), March 05, 2000.

firefly, I couldn't agree more that we are going to have to pay more attention to how we feed future generations; especially considering our very erratic weather patterns. And we seem to be entering a cycle of lots of heat and dry weather in the Midwest, while other places are drowning.

I'm a strong advocate of birth control and education. But this is a taboo topic among our leaders. And to me, one should consider parenting as important as getting a good education or having good health. For many people babies are just an unwanted by-product of sex, and this is sad.

Glad you brought up this topic. Worn out will post tomorrow.

-- gilda (jess@listbot.com), March 05, 2000.

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