During four days at the end of January, the skies dumped a year’s rainfall on Mozambique. The consequent floods killed many and displaced over one million people. Within one week of the first rains, Mozambique’s economy and infrastructure had been set back 25 years, the floods causing more damage than the 16 years of civil war that devastated the country. More was to come as Cyclone Eline moved in from Madagascar.
In front of our TV sets in the relative safety of our living rooms, most of us watched with empathy the plight of the thousands left clinging to tree tops and bridges and with a shared feeling of human pride in the frantic and selfless efforts of the South African helicopter crews who flew countless missions to rescue those most in danger.
TVs are useful in this regard, allowing viewers to witness, almost live, the colossal tragedies endured by our fellow humans around the world, evoking in us all manner of emotions, whether it be the urge to send a cheque off to some charity, the despair at not being able to help out more, or a certain numbness born of an over-familiarity with such events, a kind of donor fatigue.
What TV sets don’t seem to get across is the behind-the-scenes stories, the kind of stories that hint at our powerlessness to help out at once, the futility of the controllers of capitalist society in putting the vast technological resources that are available in case of such emergencies into operation.
Weeks into the Mozambique disaster, arguments sprang up as to who was to pay for the continuing South African search and rescue missions. The US argued with the South African government over landing rights and, here in Britain, a battle raged between the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development over who was going to pay the £2.2 million cost of sending five Puma helicopters. Never did it occur to the latter reprobates that in 24 hours the British public had chipped in £4m to help out or that the Blair government was throwing more money into the wastage of the £750 Millennium Dome.
So incompetent were the British government in getting their act together, in fact, that the Puma helicopters arrived after the search and rescue phase had been called off. Even then, they proved of little use because the limited range they could cover meant they could not offer assistance in the north of the country where they were needed. Moreover, the officer in charge of the British party had no experience at all in disaster relief.
We can well ask why there was no information on hand that could have suggested that Mozambique was about to face such devastating floods and a cyclone. While there are established international protocols for the sharing of meteorological information, there is no international obligation to do so. With advanced scientific equipment, and with satellite technology now widely used, the know-how exists to provide the world with data regarding soil absorption water run-off in rivers and anticipated rainfall. However, as one Guardian writer observed:
“It costs money to amass, monitor and analyse data and pass it on to the people who need it most.” (6 March)
And this is the crux of the problem. Who will pay for this level of technology or, more importantly, how much immediate profit can be gleaned from investment in the same?
After each natural disaster and the rescue missions that slowly swing into action, the “experts” tell us we can learn lessons from it. As much was said after the December 1999 Venezuelan flood that left 20,000 dead, and after the Orissa, India, cyclone that left two million homeless and Central America’s Hurricane Mitch which created one million refugees.
Each time there are calls for an International rapid deployment force of rescue and first-aid teams. Each time there were questions as to how such devastation could not have been foreseen and for more co-operation and sharing of information.
Resources for war – too costly for aid
Few make an attempt to set the problem in a wider social and economic context, for instance making that crucial link to the perennial priority of profit before human need. Few point to the mountain of red tape that has to be cut through before rescue teams can be mobilised, red tape that the functioning of capitalism makes necessary (i.e. the observance of national boundaries and air-space, getting the okay from this and that government, working out who will foot the bill before operations are underway etc.)
While a case can be made that global warming is at least a contributory cause of recent floodings, hurricanes and cyclones (i.e. the greenhouse effect means more warmth, which means more evaporation, which means more wind and rain) there is no current planning for future disasters—and they will come. Foresight as ever proves an expensive luxury to those who at currently have the greatest say in our lives.
Right now, we not only have the technology to begin reversing the effects of global warming, and to predict the patterns and consequences of changing global weather conditions, but we have more than the capability to meet any natural disaster head on, thus preventing the loss of further life and the waste of valuable resources. At present, however, control over such technological resources is in the hands of a small elite, the capitalist class, and their executive, the world’s governments.
As we await further natural disasters we can only guess at how long it will take the “experts” to contemplate a system of society in which the earth’s scientific and technological resources are the common property of all and in which the death tolls from such disasters are greatly reduced.