The Mozambique floods
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.
Death and destruction in Dili
In 1996 (Socialist Standard, March) we reported, and commented upon, Indonesian repression in East Timor and Australian interest in, and control of, the vast oil deposits under the sea between Australia and East and West Timor. Much has happened since then.
East Timor is now “independent”. The Indonesians have gone. But not before they had killed thousands of Timorese and largely reduced the capital, Dili, to a burned-out ruin. Much of this has been levelled against Eurico Gutterres, a former Indonesian militia leader, now living under an assumed name in Jakarta. According to the West Australian (18 December), “the Indonesian military recruited and trained Guterres who commanded a paramilitary group called Aitarak, or Thorn, which was given the responsibility for security in Dili”. He ordered the destruction of East Timor, “carrying out his threat to turn East Timor into a wasteland if the Timorese voted to rejected Jakarta’s rule”. He now says that he does not feel guilty. He was only carrying out orders, he said.
In what the West Australian (15 January) calls “the razed capital” of Dili, “thousands of the deeply religious East Timorese Catholics tun out for Mass to thank god for delivering them from the horror of 24 years of Indonesian occupation”. But just outside Dili there are hundreds of children starving. Of the situation, reports the West Australian of the same date:
“Stagnant pools of sewage lay nearby, mixing with the regular afternoon rains, virtually ensuring that all open wounds would become infected. A girl, aged about five, stands half-naked except for a skin of massive, infected lesions which stretch from under her jaw to her waist.”
“A blackmarket for food and goods has sprouted in Dili, with tonnes of rice and noodles being imported and held under guard in warehouses in the razed capital.”
Meanwhile, thousands of Timorese are starving in West Timor refugee camps. President Clinton is said to be concerned about a possible military coup, and the spread of religious violence in Indonesia; and Richard Holbrooke, the US Ambassador to the UN, “accused pro-Jakarta militias of blocking the return of about 125,000 East Timorese remaining in camps in West Timor. Responsibility for this lies primarily with the Indonesian military who continues to support the militia in the camps, he said” (West Australian, 17 January).
By last September, 75 percent of East Timor’s population had been displaced, and 70 percent of its houses, public buildings and essential utilities had been destroyed by the Indonesian-backed militias and military (West Australian, 8 January). However, Australian companies “have a chance to grab a slice of the $800 million which will be spent on rebuilding on East Timor over the next three years”. Indeed, more than £300 million will have been pumped into reconstruction by June this year.
There are, of course, problems for Australian capitalists, if not exactly the same as for Timorese workers and peasants. Land ownership was a problem, as records had been destroyed; and it was impossible to know who owned what. ” Conditions in Dili were tough, but foreign businesses were working there,” said Malcolm Murray, the international projects team leader with the Australian Department of Trade and Commerce. Nevertheless, Australian construction businesses have moved into Dili “with gusto”. There were many unemployed Timorese workers; but “the Australian Council for Overseas Aid also warned that pay rates for local workers could lead to gross inequality in wealth” (West Australian, 17 January).
Meanwhile, reported Agence France-Press (17 January), Australian, international and East Timorese officials held a conference to discuss a new Timor Gap oil treaty to replace the “illegal” treaty signed in December 1989, between Australia and Indonesia over the oil-rich waters between northern Australia and East Timor (see Socialist Standard, March 1996). However, Indonesia said that it would “accept a review or a cancellation of the treaty with Australia”, presumably as it now has little choice.
The UN made it clear in 1979 that the Indonesian invasion of the former Portuguese colony, and its subsequent occupation, was illegal and that therefore so was the so-called oil treaty. But “the Australian government has always maintained that the treaty is legal”, reports the West Australian of 18 December. As of December last year, Australian companies BHP, Santos and Petroz had already extracted 32,500 barrels of oil daily from three wells in the zone jointly controlled by Australia and Indonesia. BHP, however, have since sold its assets to the US company, Phillips Petroleum. There have been, it would seem, disputes over a number of as yet unstarted fields, including the Woodside’s Laminaria field and BHP’s Buffalo field which “would fall into an area which might be claimed by East Timor as well as Australia” (West Australian, 18 December).
East Timor has now replaced Indonesia as Australia’s partner in the Timor Gap oil treaty, according to the West Australian (12 February). The official ceremony was held in Dili at the beginning of the month, James Batley, Australia’s resident consul in East Timor, who signed the new treaty, said that “there are important investment prospects here, and this has smoothed the path for those to go ahead”. Of course! And the United Nations secretary-general, who recently visited Dili, said how pleased he was at Australia’s quick response to the UN’s call for troops to go to East Timor. Yes; of course, of course!
Meanwhile, the poverty-stricken, propertyless, often starving workers and peasants of East (and West) Timor watch, sometimes pray, and hope that things will get no worse.
PETER E NEWELL