Thursday, May 15, 2008

Cyclone Nargis -- How Not to Respond to a Disaster

There has been a lot of stuff written about the cyclone Nargis that hit Burma last week. Probably the best coverage has been the BBC.

I will not go into details here, but here are some highlights (or should that be lowlights):

  • The damage was very severe, mostly due to the tidal surge and flooding. The satellite photos from NASA are stunning, showing the vast amount of flooded areas in the Irrawaddy Delta and near Rangoon.
  • A quote from a Rangoon resident - "When there were protests the army was everywhere, now they are nowhere to be found".
  • The military government refused to allow disaster response teams from the UN into the country.
  • They would allow aid, but only the Burmese military could distribute it (with what they said were their seven helicopters!).
  • Even Burmese citizens have been stopped from giving out food and other relief aid to other Burmese.
  • There were reports where aid received from outside was printed with the Burmese generals names in order for them to get credit.

A country not wishing to have outside help or aid is not unprecedented. In fact, India did almost the same thing with the 2004 tsunami. But to not allow outside help AND not do anything themselves is what is very distressing.

Essentially all of those who were affected by Cyclone Nargis were pawns in a high stakes political game. The whole thing was about control -- control at any cost.

We can do all we want into terms of disaster preparedness, with the Hyogo framework and all, but when politics interfere all of that goes out the window. Disaster response must be immediate - indeed the first few hours are the most important. Maybe the international community should start to concentrate on access (1). Burmese actions must be condemned at the highest levels and steps taken to prevent they time of behavior from occurring. Access to disaster relief must be made a human right. Should denial of these rights be considered "war crimes"?

This was absolutely the worst response there has ever been to a natural disaster, and let us hope that it never happens again.

NOTE: (1) I was disappointed that after the cyclone the only statement (pdf) from the UN's International Strategy for Disaster Reduction concerned early warning.

PS. It was interesting to see the difference between the government reactions to Cyclone Nargis and to the 7.8 earthquake in China.

No comments: