Madagascar + 2 more

West exposed by disaster

Johannesburg, South Africa. March 3 2000

A month after the first warnings, there is still no strategy to stem the suffering


A Gigantic Antonov 124 transporter flew south ferrying an emergency airlift of RAF helicopters last night as the British government was reinforcing its multimillion-pound efforts to rescue thousands trapped by rising floodwater in Mozambique.
The launch of a celebrity-led appeal yesterday by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), representing 11 major charities, may mobilise further public support and raise millions more. Behind the popular enthusiasm, however, an inter-departmental political storm is brewing over delays in despatching helicopters to the flooded region.

Last night it became clear that the British ministry of defence (MoD), which initially told the department for international development (DfID) that it should bear the cost of transporting helicopters to the disaster region, had offered to share the bill.

The MoD at first asked DfID for =A32,2-million (R22m) for the package of 100 RAF pilots, support staff, four Puma helicopters and the freight transporter fare to Mozambique. By last night the cost had been halved to =A31,15-million. In a change of approach, military sources were agreeing to "defray some of the costs". Having already spent =A36-million on aid to Mozambique, Britain is now one of the largest international donors.

For those in Southern Africa who have watched since the rains came a month ago, a more fundamental flaw has been lack of planning: only television pictures of refugees clinging to the treetops panicked the international aid community into the necessary response.

All along, local observers have argued, the UN and foreign governments have responded to each twist of the crisis belatedly and with little forethought to what might happen next. There have been more than a few warnings that Mozambique's misery was only going to worsen.

The downpour which struck at the end of January dumped a year's rainfall on the country in the space of four days. They were the heaviest for half a century. After the first floods, Britain and other governments funded the usual emergency medical supplies and tenting and food. South Africa sent five helicopters to lift food and other aid to the homeless.

One puzzle is how, with so many experienced aid agencies present, it could take so long to recognise the urgent need for helicopters and boats.

Two weeks ago, Cyclone Eline began tearing through Madagascar, where it left seven people dead. Then it turned toward Mozambique. By then, the UN had a contingent from its office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs in Maputo planning how to deal with the existing floods. Britain's DfID sent a team on February 11.

Eline did not prove to be as devastating as feared, although it drove tens of thousands from their homes. Aid donors took it as a sign that the worst was past. But it was a false dawn.

It went unnoticed that Cyclone Eline was pouring huge amounts of waters into the already swollen Limpopo and Save rivers in South Africa and Zimbabwe. No one planned for what would happen when that water came back down the rivers and into Mozambique.

They discovered in the middle of last Saturday night. There was no preparation by foreign donors. It was already evident that helicopters would be crucial, but as the flooding consumed entire towns, no one had resolved the question of who was going to pay for the existing five South African helicopters let alone additional aircraft.

Aid agencies have admitted they were caught unawares by the opening of overwhelmed dams upstream in Zimbabwe and South Africa. They were also not prepared to help with rescue efforts. "We would be looking to governments and armed forces for that," said Nicola Pazdzierska of the DEC. "It's not what humanitarian agencies are all about."

The Red Cross took a similar view. "Helicopters are very expensive," said a spokeswoman. "We don't see ourselves as a rescue service. We are more of a service to help people once they have been rescued." At one stage, she added, they had inquired about hiring an aircraft and be told it was $80 000 a day.

The Mozambique disaster has exposed an embarrassing weakness in Britain's military ability to mount operations involving the movement of heavy equipment, such as helicopters and boats. This gap in the MoD's capability was singled out in the 1988 strategic defence review: RAF Hercules transporters are too small to carry large helicopters.

DfID's first instinct was to charter local South African helicopters; they were nearer. But on Monday (according to DfID) or Tuesday (according to the MoD), Clare Short's department asked the MoD if it could spare some helicopters.

"There were none within 5 000km," was the reply. It would take nine days sailing from the Persian Gulf to reach Mozambique said defence officials.

In the meantime, DfID officials located another five helicopters in Mozambique and South Africa and hired them immediately. Not until late on Wednesday, after two days of wrangling, was the green light given to despatch the RAF Pumas by a chartered Antonov.

The Mozambique floods underline the need for improved international early warning centres and co-ordination of rapid response forces.

At the beginning of the week there were just seven helicopters dedicated to rescue missions. Now there are at least 17. No one knows the death toll, or how many died for want of rescuing in the first days. Even now, priorities are not what they should be. Yesterday, one commercial helicopter which had been plucking people from the waters was taken off its rescue mission to fly a Danish EU commissioner, Poul Nielson, to view the devastation.

-- The Guardian, March 3 2000.

Always too little and too late?

Venezuelan floods, December 1999

20 000-30 000 dead
400 000 homeless
$2-billion damage

Torrential storms caused flooding and landslides in and around Caracas on December 16. It took five days for the International Red Cross to launch an appeal for $2,8-million to fly in medical supplies. On December 20, the country's foreign minister, Jose Vicente Rangel, was quoted as saying that more foreign aid was needed. "It's never enough, given the magnitude of the tragedy, solidarity is never enough."

Orissa, India, cyclone October 1999

10 000 dead
Two million homes destroyed, 12-million families affected
$3,5billion damage

Gales of up to 270km/h hit the east coast of India in Orissa on October 29. It took three days for a relief effort to begin, when India's prime minister announced a =A342-million rescue package. Five days after the storm, the co-ordination centre consisted of six workers, two telephones and a fax machine. The Red Cross launched a preliminary appeal for $2,5-million, and Britain's emergency committee launched an appeal for the victims.

Izmit, Turkey, earthquake, August 1999

18 000 dead
100 000 affected

An earthquake of 7,8 on the Richter scale struck north-west Turkey on August 17. The government of Turkey was criticised for failing to have prepared emergency plan for a big earthquake. The Turkish army was active immediately, but was accused of focusing much of its early efforts on searching for survivors of a destroyed naval base in Golcuk. It took three days for national emergency teams to reach the worst-hit areas.

Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, Hurricane Mitch, October 1998

11 000 dead, one million refugees
$5-billion damage

Forecasters predicted the hurricane, which struck on October 27. But the west only responded after the event. The US initially pledged just $2-million, later increased to $30-million. In Britain, International Development minister Clare Short was criticised for initially refusing to write off the region's debt. Britain first pledged =A351 000, raising it =A3750 000 in direct aid. It took almost a week for large-scale food and emergency equipment to reach the region.