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UN spokesman Fred Eckhard
''It's an imperfect system, you're always building from scratch''
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Friday, 7 April, 2000, 16:26 GMT 17:26 UK
Disasters: Why the world waits
Mozambique floods
Awaiting rescue in Mozambique
By BBC News Online's Emma Batha

Ethiopia, which is on the verge of famine, has accused the world of waiting until skeletons appear on its television screens before it will act.

Appeals for food were made last November, but the relief effort has only just begun.

While Ethiopia was grappling unnoticed with its drought in February, vast areas of Mozambique disappeared under floodwaters.

Again the West was accused of dithering, leaving five South African helicopters struggling to save thousands of people clinging to tree tops.

The international relief effort did not get seriously under way until three weeks after the rains began.

Shepard Foreman, director of the Center on International Co-operation in New York which looks at disaster management, said the response was ''absolutely shocking''.
Natural disasters
96% of deaths from natural disasters occur in developing countries
1bn people live in unplanned shanty towns
40 of the 50 fastest growing cities are in quake zones
10m people live under constant threat of floods
Source: Red Cross
If there had been an avalanche in Switzerland with 10 skiers buried there would have been 10 helicopters out looking for them immediately, he says.

But Mozambique was hardly the first such catastrophe. Last year there were earthquakes in Turkey, Greece and Taiwan and major floods in Venezuela, India and Vietnam.

Natural disasters have killed more than 110,000 people over the last two years and millions more have lost homes and livelihoods.
Orissa floods
Disasters like Orissa hurt the poor hardest
The United Nations which, ironically, has just completed an International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction, reports the number of catastrophes has trebled over the last 10 years.

Even if earthquakes and cyclones are unpredictable in themselves, they happen with a predictable regularity - so why is the response frequently so slow?

There appear to be two main problems - the piecemeal approach to funding and a lack of co-ordination between governments and aid agencies.


Appeals are only made once there is a crisis, which means the money starts coming in after it is needed for the initial mass evacuations.

Donations then pour in at a higher rate than the agencies spend it, but tail off once the catastrophe drops out of the headlines, even though there are usually still thousands of homeless to feed and shelter.
Mozambique flood
The Mozambique floods have left one million homeless
Fabrizio Gentiloni of the UN's Rapid Disaster Response Branch says: ''The root cause of the delay in responding is that cash is frequently unavailable at the beginning and you have to scream for help from donors.

''You have to have money to rent the helicopters and arrange charters, but there is often a gap between the pledge being made and the donation arriving.''

What the UN and many other bodies would like to see is a pool of money made available at the beginning of each year for emergencies.

A few countries - Italy, Norway and the UK - have started paying up front, but the amounts are still very small.
rescue helicopter
Only five helicopters were initially available
Peter Walker of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says: ''The way we respond is incredibly ad hoc, which is daft in a way because we can say at least two thirds of what our needs will be.

''For example, I'm 90% certain we will have a relief operation in Bangladesh every year for floods.''

Rapid response

The Mozambique floods once again raised the question of whether an international rapid response unit should be set up which could fly into any crisis.

Although the UN has a rescue co-ordinating office in Geneva, it has no official rescue service.

However, aid workers say that while an international unit is an attractive idea on paper, it is an impractical one.

Quake: The first hours are crucial
First of all there is the question of speed. In an earthquake around 90% of people saved are dug out within the first 24 hours. The fastest response is from the immediate area.

Mr Walker says it makes more sense for each government to set up a really thorough emergency response system involving strong regional co-operation and a solid plan for co-ordinating with international relief agencies.


Unfortunately, Mozambique's problem was exacerbated by the fact that it could not call on most of its neighbours for support.

Zimbabwe and Botswana do not have enormous resources to spare at the best of times and have been dealing with their own flood crises.

On top of this Zimbabwe has sent many of its helicopters to fight in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But Mr Walker says that although the world had focused on the shortage of helicopters, they are not the real solution for flood operations - they make the news because they are ''photogenic''.

The most cost-effective way of saving people in floods is with boats which, unlike helicopters, can easily be stored in areas prone to flooding for future emergencies.
Turkish quake victim
A rescuer tries to free a victim of the Turkish quake
The plight of Mozambique also sparked talk of making more use of armies in rescue operations.

But aid agencies say there is reluctance to do this because it costs three to four times more to use a military unit than a civilian unit.

A few governments have started including a certain amount of relief work in their military budgets.

However, Mr Gentiloni says the solution is not setting up yet another UN body or using armies, but strengthening co-ordination between existing rescue agencies.


Looking to the future, one thing Mozambique can be sure of is that there will be more floods.

Now the waters have subsided it will have to consider whether to spend precious dollars on setting up early warning systems and building shelters.

Bangladesh, which is flooded every year, is proof low-tech prevention does save lives.

In 1991, flooding in Bangladesh killed at least 140,000 people. The 1998 floods were more widespread, but fewer than 1,000 people died.

This is partly because they have built cyclone shelters and artificial hills and set up an early warning system. When a storm is coming in thousands of Red Cross volunteers are mobilised with megaphones up and down the coast and further inland.
Hurricane Mitch
Victims of Hurricane Mitch waited nearly a week for aid
One of the reasons the international response in Mozambique was slow is that there is no warning system.

The second wave of flooding was due to rivers bursting their banks after heavy rainfalls upstream in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Yet there is no system between these countries for sharing information about rising water levels.

A river basin agreement would help forecast potential crises and improve the speed of rescue operations.

But such initiatives will be too late for the hundreds of thousands of Mozambicans who saw their homes and livelihoods washed away in the floods.

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See also:

01 Mar 00 | Africa
Mozambique: How you can help
28 Aug 99 | World
Nature's lethal weapons
08 Mar 99 | Hurricane Mitch
Special Report: Hurricane Mitch
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