This year was ushered in by a series of devastating floods: in Queensland, Australia, covering an area greater than France and Germany combined, in Sri Lanka and in the Philippines. There has been further flooding in the Australian state of Victoria, with Cyclone Yasi battering Queensland, and a murderous mudslide in Brazil.
These follow on from the huge number of disasters in 2010:
- starting with the earthquake in Haiti on 12 January, killing 230,000, injuring 300,000, making over a million homeless and leading directly to the cholera outbreak ravaging the country;
- storm Xynthia battered the Atlantic coast of France, killing 52 in France, Spain and Portugal;
- earthquake in Chile killing 521, making half a million homeless;
- the heatwave in Moscow, killing 15,000, destroying crops and putting up wheat prices up 47%;
- enormous floods in Pakistan;
- the Mexican Gulf oil spill following the explosion of Deepwater Horizon, killing 11 workers on the oil platform and devastating the ecology of the area and the livelihoods of fishermen;
- the Hungarian aluminium spill causing 4 deaths and considerable ecological destruction.
So used to disaster are we becoming that if you look at the media since the New Year you could blink and miss the floods in the Philippines despite a death toll of 75 and £27bn of destruction to crops and infrastructure, and those in Sri Lanka with at least 40 dead and 300,000 displaced. You did not even need to blink to miss the Chinese drought, part of a general process of desertification: you have to look for it.
Capitalism’s responsibility for death and misery
There can be no doubt that the ruthless search for profit, heightened by fiercer competition as the economic crisis develops, is directly responsible for the deaths and ecological disasters caused by the BP oil spill and the Hungarian aluminium spill. But the same is true for the death and misery caused by seismic or climatic events. For example if we look at the earthquakes that took place in 2010 and compare the death toll and level of destruction, we can see the effects of a totally irresponsible policy of building cheaply without thought of what the buildings have to withstand. In New Zealand the earthquake of 7.1 on the Richter scale killed no-one, despite taking place close to the city of Christchurch, due to properly enforced seismic building regulations. In Haiti, a quake of similar magnitude, 7.3, caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in Port-au-Prince where buildings have just been put up as quickly, cheaply and profitably as possible regardless of even basic safety, let alone the well known risk of earthquakes. Once built, even prestigious buildings were not maintained.
When we come to the floods and mudslides a pattern of ruling class responsibility also emerges. In Brazil there were over 800 deaths in the state of Rio de Janeiro as a result of heavy rains and mudslides, with another 30 in neighbouring states. These can be directly linked to the policy of building in unsafe areas, despite the fact that January rains are getting heavier. The ministry to monitor urban planning was only set up in 2003 and £4.4bn set aside for disaster containment 2 years ago. “… ‘These are emergency works purely to reduce the repetition of tragedies,’ says Celso Carvalho, the national secretary of urban programmes. ‘Our cities are very insecure because of the failure to apply urban planning’. Short-term, eye-caching public works are the focus. Winning elections is the aim. Dominated by this logic, the main driver of cities’ growth is profit, above everything else. That’s the reason why so many people live in high-risk areas, such as the slopes of mountains. Land in the city centres is too valuable for social housing; often governments don’t force the private sector to use land in this way.” (www.guardian.co.uk).
But surely in Australia, a developed democratic country, things will be different… Let’s see the response to both the fires and floods that have hit the continent in recent years: “It’s noteworthy that the Baillieu government in Victoria has accepted a recommendation from the Black Saturday royal commission to buy back properties not only in areas directly affected by the fire, but also those considered to be in high-risk fire zones across the state. But many residents plan to rebuild or remain in these areas, assessing the risk of another devastating fire as lower than the amenity of life in a rural idyll. In Queensland, those in low-lying areas will be forced to make similar assessments in the wake of this flood. But for many, living in such areas is not a matter of choice, it is because the houses are affordable. And with the population of southeast Queensland burgeoning during the past two decades as families flee the high costs of Sydney, many new houses have been built in areas inundated in the 1974 flood.
Research fellow in geotechnical and hydrological issues at Monash University Boyd Dent says that planners can forget the lessons of history. ‘It’s absolutely essential that we take matters such as environmental geology and flood history into account in urban planning…The historical nature of these things means they aren’t in the front of mind for planners, but then events like this come along to remind us all’..” (www.theaustralian.com, 12/1/11)
In Brazil and Australia, as in the USA at the time of Hurricane Katrina, the poor have to take the risks while capital makes the profits. Lives of workers go into the ‘cost-benefit’ analysis along with any other capital investment.
The aftermath – lies, hypocrisy, neglect
“A ‘humanitarian crisis of epic proportions’ is unfolding in flood-hit areas of southern Pakistan where malnutrition rates rival those of African countries affected by famine, according to the United Nations. In Sindh province, where some villages are still under water six months after the floods, almost one quarter of children under five are malnourished while 6% are severely underfed, a Floods Assessment Needs survey has found. ‘I haven’t seen malnutrition this bad since the worst of the famine in Ethiopia, Darfur and Chad. It’s shockingly bad,’ said Karen Allen, deputy head of Unicef in Pakistan. The survey reflects the continuing impact of the massive August floods, which affected 20 million people across an area the size of England, sweeping away 2.2m hectares of farmland.” (Guardian 27/01/11)
Throughout the period of the floods, the Pakistani ruling class appeared completely impotent, unable to competently organise relief and aid for the millions of people affected. Pakistan consistently ranks as one of the poorest countries in the world and the vast scale of corruption in daily life has been well-documented elsewhere. However, the cynicism and hypocrisy are clear when it was reported that “The Pakistan military has kept up pressure on militants in the northwest despite the devastating floods that have required major relief efforts, a top US officer said on Wednesday. Vice Admiral Michael LeFever, who oversees US military assistance in Pakistan, said Islamabad has not pulled troops out of the fight against insurgents but has had to divert some aircraft needed for rescue efforts due to the massive flooding.” (thenews.com, 06/12/10). So the priorities are clear. In fact, these comments hide the fact that in the north western provinces of Pakistan there has already been an ongoing crisis due to the effects of the earthquake which struck the region in 2005, from which the region never fully recovered, and the ongoing (and increasing) military actions there against the Pakistani Taliban. These latter have also caused significant displacements of people: estimates range from 100,000 - 200,000 people.
A similar picture emerges in Haiti a year after the quake: only 5% of the rubble has been cleared, less than 30% of promised aid has been paid. The population living in frayed tents and under tarpaulins in appalling conditions have fallen prey to a cholera epidemic, adding hundreds to the death toll. However, when the bourgeoisie want to build, even in poverty stricken Haiti where more than half the population survive on less than $1 a day, they can. The iron market in Port-au-Prince was rebuilt with earthquake protection within a year, funded by Irish billionaire Dennis O’Brien at a cost of $12 million. Whatever subjective charitable feelings he may profess, the hard truth is that capital will only build when it is profitable and as the New York Times noted “He is also keenly aware of the financial upside to getting Haiti up and running again. ‘As a company, we’re more aligned to the masses than to the elites,” Mr. O’Brien said of his interest in the market’.” (www.nytimes.com, 11/1/11). In fact as a BBC programme ‘From Haiti’s Ashes’ showed, the planned housing project that was supposed to go ahead alongside the rebuilding has been shelved in favour of political self-interest, replaying on a smaller scale the scramble for influence between the USA and France in the immediate aftermath of the disaster – a time when food and water seemed only able to get through to their own military personnel and NGOs. In fact aid given to disasters of the last 20 years has resulted not so much in relief of the population as in a 25% increase in the debt that will be serviced at the expense of that population (see http://en.internationalism.org/wr/2010/%252F331/Haiti).
And in Sri Lanka “Victims of flooding in Sri Lanka have besieged a government office in the east of the country, accusing officials of holding back relief supplies. Windows were smashed as more than 1,000 people surrounded the office in a village in eastern Batticaloa district. Flood victims have told the BBC that some local politicians have been giving food and other aid to their supporters rather than the most needy.” (17/1/11, BBC online).
And this is without taking account of the effect of these disasters on rising food price rises and economic disruption, spreading the resulting misery far more widely.
The contribution of climate change
Monsoons, floods, heatwaves and droughts – all the extreme climate events call to mind the effects of climate change, of global warming. Climate change scientists have to be cautious about linking specific events to the overall picture. Nevertheless the British Met Office says the floods in Australia and the Philippines are linked to La Nina, and it is possible those in Brazil are also but the evidence is not clear (The Guardian 14/1/11). Similarly, the extreme events last summer, both the Moscow droughts and the Pakistan floods, were caused by the jet stream becoming fixed, making areas to the south much warmer (www.wired.co.uk). In other words, there is considerable evidence that capitalism has even more responsibility for the natural disasters of the past 13 months through its impact of the world’s climate.
The bourgeoisie has made one positive contribution, not through its useless climate conferences which either cannot make a real deal (Copenhagen) or make a deal that remains a dead letter (Kyoto), not through the fraud of aid, but in creating its own gravedigger, the working class.