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Review of the year: Disasters

2005 December 30
by Paul Vallely

We live, most generally, in a world which we feel is ordered. Underpinned by the constant advances of science and technology, and the ever-increasing sophistication of human society, we proceed about our lives cherishing the illusion that we are somehow in control. But just occasionally nature intervenes with a rude reminder of just how fragile is the grip that we humans have on our planet.

In the past twelve months nature has been working over-time with her assaults on our reality. First came the tsunami, the most deadly ever recorded, in which more than 200,000 people perished in 13 different countries, a thousand or more miles apart. Then a ghastly famine sneaked up on Niger while the world was looking the other way. Next ferocious hurricanes whipped the south coast of the United States, devastating one of the major cities of the globe’s most powerful nation. Finally came an earthquake of such terrible violence that it ripped open the Himalayas with a force comparable to the two biggest quakes of the 20th century, killing 80,000 people and leaving an unimaginable three million people homeless.

Yet the great concatenation of disasters throughout 2005 did more than instil once again our sense of awe at our human insignificance in the natural order. They taught us something about humanity at its best and worst – and raised uncomfortable questions about who it is that suffers in such circumstances, and why. For we discovered that acts of God, as the insurance world still puts it, are matched – and sometimes horribly exceeded – by acts of man in their sheer callousness.

The tsunami set the scene for the year to come. On Boxing Day last year an earthquake measuring 9.15 on the Richter scale sent shockwaves racing through the Indian Ocean. This huge energy set in motion the entire mass of the sea. The water forced its way onto land in the immediate vicinity of the quake in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. But because, we learned, a tsunami stirs the very depths of the ocean it can travel huge great trans-oceanic distances losing hardly any energy. And so it wrought havoc on coastlines a thousand miles away in Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and even as far as Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania in eastern Africa.

The television pictures were like something from a Hollywood horror film. As the wave hit landfall it rose to heights of 30 metres. But it was not, as many imagined, a single wave. It was a seemingly endless onrushing tide which surged onto the land, pulverising everything in its path, reducing buildings to their foundations and scouring the landscape to its very bedrock. The huge terrible wave gripped the imagination of the world.

It prompted a dramatic and instantaneous response worldwide to help those caught up in the tragedy. Nearly every single adult Briton, one survey found, donated to the tsunami victims in some way. In the United States, it sparked perhaps the greatest outpouring of charitable giving the country had ever seen in response to a foreign disaster. Hollywood celebrities wrote million-dollar cheques. Schoolchildren adopted devastated villages in countries they had previously only heard of. A United Nations appeal to governments brought in 80 percent of the $977 million target in three weeks. Billions of dollars were raised from private individuals for disaster relief. Médecins Sans Frontières was so swamped with donations in the week after the disaster that – unprecedentedly – it actually had to ask people to stop sending in cash.

But there was a dark underside to the response. When charities announced they had as much money as they could realistically spend on tsunami relief and contacted donors to ask if their cash could be spent elsewhere an extraordinary 10 per cent said No – and asked for their money back. A survey of those who had donated in Britain found that 23 per cent said they would either give less or not give again to charity in the year ahead. And the predictions were fulfilled; as the months went by unglamorous small charities like Childline, Saneline and the National Missing Persons Helpline all had to make cuts in their services as donations fell away.

The tsunami dwarfed the routine disasters the year was to bring. As 2005 continued thousands of people died – in an earthquake in Iran (500 dead), another in Indonesia (1000 dead), in the monsoons in India, (1,000 dead) and in floods in China (567 dead). After the tsunami none of it made the front pages.

Nor, for months and months, did the situation in Niger where it is estimated as many as 10,000 people died when famine silently stalked the land. Ironically it happened as millions of people were sporting white wristbands to support the Make Poverty History campaign. But while the Live 8 concerts, and the G8 summit were attempting to address the long-term structural problems of the continent, three million people were quietly starving in one of Africa’s poorest countries.

It illustrated international compassion at its most woeful. Aid agencies had warned of a developing crisis some eight months earlier. The United Nations had appealed for help on three separate occasions. But it was only when pictures of its starving children appeared on the world’s tv screens that the money began to flow – with more raised in ten days than in the previous ten months. But so late was the cash that flying in food which should have been trucked in months before meant it cost £50 to save a child who could have been helped for a mere 50 pence had the world responded when it was first asked.

Why this extraordinary neglect? Essentially because no-one really cared. All the early warning systems were in place and worked exactly as they were designed to. But the alarm bells fell on deaf ears among aid agencies, governments, international organisations and the media alike. So the children in Niger died silently, off camera, leaving unpricked the conscience of the world.

Some lessons were learned. At the UN summit in New York in September the UN’s $50,000 standing fund to respond to crises like Niger was increased to $150m to prevent the UN from having to waste precious time going round member states asking for money at every crisis.

But natural disasters, it became clear, are far from natural at all. There was, it transpired, plenty of food in Niger. The markets of the capital were groaning red onions, spinach, pumpkins, rice, pasta and manioc flour while only a few miles away skeleton children queued in relief camps. There was nothing new in that. The Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen had noted long before, in a study of the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 in which a million people died, that famines are not about a lack of food so much as a lack of money. It is the wonder of market forces. Because the destitute have no cash to pay for food, the market ships it away to areas with the resources to pay. The issue is not nature, but poverty.

That point was underscored when the world’s richest nation was hit by a series of hurricanes which culminated in Hurricane Katrina in August which breached the levee system that protected New Orleans, flooding 80 per cent of the low-lying city, in places to a depth of 25 feet. It was the most destructive and costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States. More than $200bn of damage was caused and over 300,000 people were displaced — the biggest number of Americans on the move since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s or the end of the Civil War in the 1860s.

Yet despite early estimates that 10,000 had died the final death toll was 972. The discrepancy was typical of the mild hysteria with which the event was recorded. There were extensive reports of looting, though many “looters” turned out to be only in search of food and water. There were wild reports, too, of violence, beatings, rape and murder in the city’s Superdome and Convention Centre, where 80,000 homeless people had gathered; the actual death toll there proved to be just 10, all but two of whom died of natural causes.

But what most shocked the world, with genuine justification, was not just the mesmerised inaction of the Bush administration which left thousands stranded without food, water, electricity and toilet facilities until the fifth day of the flood. It was the divide between rich and poor which was exposed by the disaster. New Orleans has one of the highest poverty rates – 38 per cent – in the United States. Almost 70 per cent of its population is black. Yet although it was known that more than a quarter of the city’s residents did not own cars, the official evacuation plan left it up to citizens to find their own way out of the city. As a result most of those stranded were black, poor, elderly and sick.

America’s Third World underbelly was revealed. Evidence emerged that although America leads the world in healthcare spending so little goes to black Americans that the infant mortality rate in the US is now the same as Malaysia, which has a mere quarter of America’s income. Blacks in Washington DC were shown to have a higher urban infant death than the Indian state of Kerala. Once again the interaction between disaster and poverty was evident.

But nowhere was this relationship seen more explicitly than in the final major catastrophe of 2005. The October earthquake in Kashmir caused widespread destruction in Pakistan, Afghanistan and northern India. Although the official death toll stands at 87,350 it is likely that this will rise significantly among the 3.5 million survivors who are now living in tents, or in the ruins of their homes, during the bitter Himalayan winter.

Almost three months after the quake many remote villages remain cut off. Roads are still buried in rubble. Recently massive landslides have made things even worse. Some settlements can be reached by helicopters which will soon be grounded by bad weather. And all this is against a background of pitifully inadequate medical services, communications and essential services in the region.

Again human agency has exacerbated the situation. Though nearly a quarter of a million troops were stationed in the area – which is acrimoniously contested between Pakistan and India – the immediate response of both armies was not to assist the victims, but to ensure that their rival gained no advantage. Tens of thousands suffocated in the rubble while the military dallied. Pakistan refused an offer of Indian Army helicopters because India would not allow Pakistani pilots to fly them. Into this breach stepped large numbers of jihadi militiamen who set aside their Kalashnikovs for picks and shovels to help local people, gaining significant prestige at the expense of the Pakistani government which has in the past unpopularly tried to crack down on the militants at the behest of America.

But the response of the wider world was no less revealing. By contrast with the tsunami, which had raised 80 per cent of the relief cash needed within just three weeks, for Kashmir the world has not mustered even 25 per cent of the money needed. Commentators struggle to explain this. There was something novel about the tsunami which captured the world’s over-stimulated imagination. It could be seen happening in countless tourist videotapes, replayed endlessly on television. It killed several thousand Westerners which gave many Europeans and Americans a sense of personal connection to the disaster. It happened on Boxing Day when the rich world could be made to feel guilty about its festive overindulgence.  And the tsunami came early in the budget year for most governments.

Yet none of that is entirely persuasive. Unicef reported earlier this year that not a single child is known to have died from hunger or disease linked to the tsunami.  Kashmir, by contrast, is a calamity that is deepening over time.

What this year of disasters teaches us is that those who suffer most are always those who are poorest. Not only do they lack resources but, by the world’s utilitarian calculus ,they are the most unimportant people on the planet.

The poor, the man once said, we will have with us always. But what is clear is that such a fact is not an inescapable law of nature. Rather it is a consequence of the willingness of the rest of us to turn our backs on the poorest, even in their hour of need.

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