Bangladesh cyclone: Poverty puts millions at risk

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Two weeks since Cyclone Sidr hit Bangladesh the death toll has been estimated as at least 3,500, but the Bangladeshi Red Cross estimates that it could climb to 10,000. In any case the ruling class don't yet know. This is a disaster on an almost unimaginable scale: more than 2 million people displaced and without shelter, untold numbers left without food or water for days, among 5 million affected in all; people left to drag the corpses of their loved ones from the flood water; 600,000 tons of rice destroyed in the paddy fields and other agricultural and fishing production destroyed carrying the risk of increased malnutrition; the risk of water-borne diseases.

Yet it could have been so much worse. In 1991 a similar cyclone killed around 140,000, in 1970 a cyclone killed between 300,000 and half a million when it hit the city of Chittagong. This time the death toll has been reduced by the fact that Cyclone Sidr hit the South West, where there is more protection from mangrove swamp, and at low tide, so the 5 metre tidal wave was less than it would have been at high tide. Also the Cyclone Preparedness Programme warnings and shelters saved thousands of lives. But we shall not be joining those who praised the preparations. It's true that warnings were broadcast in the media and from the loudspeakers of mosques 3 days in advance, but this system does not rely not on the resources of the government-backed Bangladeshi Red Crescent, which has only 159 employees for the CPP, but on the 42,000 volunteers who carry out the warnings. Similarly, the 550 cyclone shelters are totally inadequate for the population at risk - for instance, reported that one village in Bagarat has shelters for 3,000 but a population of 27,000.

Bangladesh has always been subject to annual flooding and periodic cyclones, as a result of its geographical position as a low lying country of the Ganges Delta on the Gulf of Bengal. Yet capitalism bears the main responsibility for the death toll and misery resulting from this natural disaster. It is not just a question of the paltry resources put into the warning system compared to the need and to the vast resources put into weapons, but the very economic conditions that force millions to try and scratch a living in such dangerous conditions. Deforestation, soil erosion and poverty force the poor and landless peasants to live on and cultivate the most dangerous flood prone areas, putting millions in harm's way.

The cyclone has come at a very bad time for the economy with inflation at a 10 year high, 10% in July, and reduced demand for textiles which make up about 3 quarters of the country's exports. All this is set against a background of political instability, violence and corruption, with emergency law and a caretaker government taking over in January.

Seeing that the poorest in Bangladesh have no possibility to escape from the most dangerous low lying areas, the insufficiency of the cyclone shelters, the inadequacy of the immediate relief after the cyclone, there is little perspective for the victims to get the food, water and shelter they need nor for the longer term rehabilitation to help rebuild livelihoods destroyed by the floods. Global warming creates the perspective of more frequent and more powerful cyclones hitting the region.

There is no hope of relief for the poorest peasantry forced to farm such dangerous areas within capitalism. But we are also seeing developments in the struggle of the working class, for instance in Bangladesh we have recently seen very militant struggles by garment workers throughout the Dhaka Export Processing Zone, expressing solidarity, defending themselves against the police and the unions (see WR 308). This is fully part of the international development of working class struggles that is only at its beginning today. The hope for an end to capitalism, and all the misery it carries in its wake, lies in the existence and struggles of the working class, whose task is to dig the grave of capitalism. Alex 1.12.07