Slow relief adds to the peril

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — In the past year the world has suffered a series of natural disasters that have caused the deaths of some 200,000 people, serious injuries to many more, and enormous damage to property and infrastructure. Relief efforts by governments have often been too little and too late. Nongovernment organizations worldwide have done their best to fill the gaps, but they have been hampered by limited funds and their dependence on the availability of volunteers.

The tsunami at the end of last year was a particularly terrifying disaster for Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India. The worldwide public response was generous, but many practical as well as bureaucratic difficulties hampered relief efforts. Helicopters, ships and aircraft were quickly mobilized, but the logistic problem of procuring and delivering relief supplies meant that aid often arrived late.

Survivors had to exist in primitive conditions without medical attention. Organizations such as Doctors Without Borders did much valuable work, as did local doctors and hospitals; but the demand for help was such that many people suffered pain for prolonged periods while others, who might have been saved if medical assistance had arrived quicker, died or lost limbs. One lesson that seems to have been learned is the need for effective early warning systems in vulnerable areas.

Famines in Africa, especially Niger, had been foreseen, but governments responded much too slowly to appeals from the United Nations. Crises that could have been averted if aid had been given earlier elicited only emergency food supplies after the media publicized the plight of women and children in the countries affected and showed pictures of starving families in primitive conditions.

Once again voluntary organizations such as Oxfam and Save the Children did what they could. Their appeals for contributions received a fairly generous response in Britain despite the fear of donor fatigue after the tsunami. Yet news of growing food shortages in Malawi and Zimbabwe were overtaken by accounts of appalling natural disasters elsewhere in the world.

Summer floods in India, especially Mumbai, and in Bangladesh, drowned thousands of poor people, but relief was left largely to the authorities in both countries. The hurricanes that later hit the United States, the Caribbean and Central America drew more attention, although the number of deaths from them was probably less than from the monsoon floods in South Asia.

Pictures of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in New Orleans and surrounding areas, the apparent breakdown of law and order, the extent of poverty in black communities and the inadequate responses of the federal and local administrations had a hugely damaging impact on international perceptions of the U.S. Subsequent hurricanes, especially Wilma, also wreaked colossal damage, but perhaps because they came later and because readers and listeners were becoming inured to scenes of devastation, are likely to be less remembered — except by those directly affected.

Then came the devastating earthquake in Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, in India and Afghanistan. The worst affected areas in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir were remote and often inaccessible. Pakistani authorities were accused of failing to respond adequately or quickly enough, and serious political fallout may yet result in an already unstable country. The Pakistani Army did not have enough helicopters, tents or other supplies amid huge logistic problems. The international response here has also been inadequate. While some countries promised and delivered food, medicines, tents and blankets, others have failed to fulfill their promises of aid toward the U.N. effort. Some advanced countries in Europe have apparently ignored U.N. pleas.

Once again the voluntary organizations have been left to try to fill in the gaps. Because of the inadequate international and national responses, many of those injured and left homeless in remote areas will die before relief supplies reach them.

The U.N. urgently needs a well-endowed and adequately equipped and staffed organization to mount speedy relief operations. Governments must ensure that priority is given to this. Even if this is realized, there will still be a need for voluntary and charitable organizations to supplement national and international relief operations.

The British government (and the U.S. government) try to encourage charitable giving through favorable tax treatment of gifts to charities. One organization that helps to channel such gifts to aid organizations in Britain is the Charities Aid Foundation. It collects tax refunds on behalf of donors who can then make use of various methods to help fund British charities that supplement social security and health safety nets and provide additional funds for medical research. There is also an increasing emphasis in Britain on helping organizations respond to international emergencies.

The Japanese government has helped Pakistan meet the crisis caused by the earthquake and provided valuable assistance after the tsunami. But we don’t hear enough about Japanese charitable organizations working overseas, although growing numbers of Japanese volunteers are helping with development projects. Does the Japanese tax system do enough to encourage charitable giving?

It is difficult to prove that the number of floods and hurricanes this year is a result of man-made climate change, but it is equally impossible to prove no connection. Common sense and prudence thus suggest that we should redouble our efforts to reduce global warming. President George W. Bush and various rightwing industrial lobbies in the U.S. may continue to argue against the limited measures prescribed in the Kyoto Protocol — which is only a first and inadequate step to delay global warming — so other signatories to the accord must do all they can to ensure that it is enforced and followed up by further measures.

Earthquakes and tsunami cannot be ascribed to climate change, but they are a salutary reminder that we live on the edge of disaster. Governments as well as individuals need to increase their readiness for the next blow to our lives on Earth. This could take the form of an avian flu pandemic. It may be that avian flu will not mutate into a virus that spreads easily from person to person, but scientists have told us that they think such mutation probable. If that happens, creating an effective vaccine could take months. In the meantime, the number of deaths from such a virus could well exceed those caused by natural disasters this year.