Lessons From Disasters – The Irrawaddy



Aftermath of Cyclone Nargis remains the prime example of how a government should not deal with a natural disaster.

Buildings down in Port-au-Prince, January 2010 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Despite well-documented and sometimes unavoidable failings in disaster relief elsewhere, the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis remains the prime example of how a government should not deal with a natural disaster.

It was exactly one week after the Haiti earthquake leveled most of the country’s capital of Port-au-Prince when a man asked me: “Do you know anyone who can help? Can you tell people we are here, without anything?” The disaster killed more than 200,000 people.

The man claimed not to have seen an aid worker or official in the days since the earthquake, much less received any assistance. Slow aid delivery seems to be a common problem in emergency relief.

More recently, I heard similar stories around Sindh Province in southern Pakistan about three weeks after the monsoon floods left one- fifth of the country under water, with 8 to 9 million people homeless.

Nizam Ud Din Bharchood of Sindhi charity Hands showed me a string of ad-hoc “campsites” along the highway outside Sukkur, the largest city in the northern part of province. At one, around 30 women and children sat under trees in 40-celsius heat, with whatever belongings they grabbed as they fled ahead of the rising Indus River.

“Some of these people are here almost three weeks, without shelter, without regular access to food or water,” he said.

Roadside refuge. Three weeks after the flood, no shelter for this group outside Sukkur (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Reverse the blistering heat for freezing cold and the scene was all too reminiscent of tales heard when in the disputed Kashmir region after the 2005 earthquake. Two weeks after a disaster that left an estimated 80,000 dead and 3 million homeless, the worry was that with the Himalayan winter looming, thousands more could die if adequate shelter was not provided quickly enough. Tents were not an option, given that 4 to 5 feet of snow would cover the region for weeks on end.

In the end, the heavy snows were three weeks late, not arriving until early January 2006. The mild winter possibly did as much to prevent the much feared second wave of deaths in Kashmir than the emergency relief effort, which was heavily criticized in those two months between the disaster and the winter snows.

For sure, aid workers can sometimes cause problems for themselves, particularly when there are cultural or religious differences. In Kashmir in 2005, a long trip across mountains was animated by one aid workers’ lengthy rant about the “cultural lameness” of another NGO, which had apparently been playing loud music late at night in a camp site (aid workers in post-quake locations sleep outdoors, for safety reasons and because there are usually few stable buildings left intact).

“The muj (mujahideen) are in the hills,” she said, as she fretted that the tactless behavior of one organization could make life difficult for Westerners then in Pakistani Kashmir—usually a closed to foreigners—to help in the 2005 relief effort.

Awaiting aid delivery after the earthquake. Kashmir, November 2005 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

As it turned out, the jihadists turned a blind eye to the infidel aid workers and NATO soldiers working in Kashmir, as they busied themselves with relief provisions and, presumably, winning people over to their cause. This is not the case in Pakistan after the deluge where the Tehrik-e-Taliban has threatened to harm foreigners working on flood relief.

The threats are being taken seriously, thereby disrupting the relief operation as aid workers cannot travel to some flood-hit areas. In the days right after the earthquake, the main security threats came from overwrought, expectant crowds at aid distribution points.

In Haiti during the months since the disaster, resurgent gang crime has been a threat to relief operations, with a number of kidnappings of foreigners kept hush-hush lest excessive media publicity lead to increased ransom demands, and, in turn, foster a “kidnap market.”

The sheer scale of both natural disasters in Pakistan and the destruction of the already limited infrastructure around Port-au-Prince mean that the slow aid roll-out had some mitigating factors, in those cases.

That said, human failings meant that nature’s impact was worse than it might have been. Haiti’s earthquake measured 7.0 on the Richter Scale, around 300 times less powerful than the 8.8 earthquake that hit Chile on Feb. 27, killing 486 people. Haiti’s long years of corrupt and violent rule left it the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and probably the most vulnerable to such a disaster.

In Pakistan, allegations now abound that wealthy landowners diverted flood waters away from their plantations and toward land farmed by poor smallholders. In 2005 thousands of schoolchildren were crushed as poorly built schools collapsed, while military structures held firm close to the Line of Control and Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir.

For some experienced aid workers, man-made factors make disasters much worse in the aftermath, due to neglect, apathy, incompetence or downright cruelty.

Brian Casey, an emergency coordinator with GOAL, an Irish-based NGO that focuses on emergencies, was one of the many relief workers left astonished and angered by the well-documented indifference to the disaster shown by Burma’s ruling junta in the days and weeks after Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, which killed an estimated 147000 people when a 3-meter wall of water washed over the Irrawaddy Delta.

“We got the runaround from the Burmese embassy in Bangkok for over a week,” he recalled. “We got word that we could get visas in Sri Lanka, so we went to Colombo and from there to Rangoon. We arrived in Burma 12 days after Nargis.”

However, his team were never permitted to travel outside Rangoon. He recalled that “we could not monitor, or evaluate, or verify that aid was getting to those who needed it, and therefore donors and governments were prevented from funding us. it was the same story for many other NGOs.”

All other things considered, the obstacles to emergency relief were less in Burma, than either in Pakistan or Haiti. There was one significant difference in Burma, however. “The root of the problem in Burma was policy, the government”, he concluded.

Simon Roughneen was in Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake, and in Pakistan after both the 2005 earthquake and the recent monsoon floods.

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