In the northern Bangladesh district of Kurigram, disaster had struck in late July 2002. Hundreds of kilometres to the west, in Rajasthan, drought stalked the land, but northern Bangladesh was flooded with excess water pouring in from the Subcontinent’s northeastern stretches. Millions of survivors abandoned their homes for the relative security of marginally higher ground. The death toll, at that point reaching only into the low hundreds, included nearly as many deaths by diarrhoea as by drowning. Several people had died of snake bites, and relief workers were wading through submerged villages delivering what little aid there was. There was not nearly enough food or medicine for all those in need. “We could provide relief to only a small number of flood victims”, explained a relief worker in Sirajganj.
Yet while the mounting human toll of Asia’s swollen rivers daily added new names to its death registers, the world’s rich averted their eyes, preferring to see instead the threatened historic districts and city centres of the Czech Republic, Germany and Austria. In scenes made familiar through up-to-the-minute satellite coverage, floodwater filled subway stations in Prague’s old city, endangered postcard landmarks such as the Charles Bridge and the National Opera, and devastated corners of the city dubbed by BBC World “a jewel of Central Europe”. Just across the north-western Czech border, one of the German cultural capitals, Dresden, mobilised thousands of emergency workers and volunteers to save famous architectural landmarks like the Zwinger Palace and the Semper Opera House. Czech officials also organised the populace for flood fighting, and went so far as to airlift animals from the Prague zoo to safety. The summer floods, now safely in recess, claimed about 100 lives in the Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Russia and Romania together.
Without delay, the wealthy world stepped in to set things right in Central Europe. The US and several Scandinavian countries descended on Prague with heavy pumping equipment. The White House pledged generous financial aid and President George W Bush even called his Czech counterpart, Vaclav Havel, to assure him that the United States would rush supplies and monetary assistance to the Czech Republic for areas devastated by flooding. Not to be outdone by transatlantic generosity, the EU, which the Czech Republic may join as early as 2004, stepped in with USD 516 million in advance aid for German farmers, and another USD 55 million for the Czech Republic. The Germans, in turn, dug deep to find USD 500 million in immediate aid, and a whopping USD 6.9 billion in long term assistance. Down in Rome, the Pope offered prayers for the displaced of Central Europe, and European Commission president Romano Prodi vowed to raise USD 500 million for a natural disaster fund available to “EU states and those negotiating entry” – and then pledged to double that amount to an even billion within a few years. The Czech Republic, the most prosperous country of the former Soviet block, has a per capita GDP (purchasing power parity formula) of USD 12,900; Germany’s is USD 23,400.
While the economic details of the European floods may be unfamiliar to many, the stories of heroism to save threatened museums, music halls and zoo animals are hardly unknown, even in the ignored corners of the South. All the international news channels (including BBC World, Deutche Welle and CNN International) continuously offered in-depth coverage of the tragedy on their global broadcasts. CNN has even gone so far as to establish a special European floods section on its website, an honour typically reserved for US presidential elections and the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
In South Asia, the television cameras have yet to arrive, much less aid of any significant amount. Floodwaters along the reaches of the Ganga, Brahmaputra and their tributaries displaced or trapped 25 million, mostly poor, people. According to the latest ‘official’ numbers, the Subcontinent’s floodwater human toll has topped 900. Nepal, the smallest of the region’s affected countries, has suffered the heaviest losses, with at least 424 deaths. In China, floods have claimed 133 lives in the past few months; in Vietnam, at least 10. On the other side of the globe, 10 people died in central Mexico after high water brought on by unusually heavy rains burst through two dams, including one near San Luis Potosi, burying several villages under water.
Not surprisingly, information about the ongoing tragedies in South Asia, China and Mexico hardly appears on television programming beamed from the wealthy countries. Moreover, dispatches from Asia and Latin America carry no mention of ‘aid’ or ‘relief’. No promises are being made to the people from these faraway places who are suffering what may well be the effects of a global warming primarily triggered by the rich world’s unbridled consumption. No heavy equipment was shifted to India, Nepal, Bangladesh or China from nearby US Navy bases or from altruistic Scandinavian countries. The EU has resisted weak calls for assistance, and, as of going to press at the fag end of the Asian monsoon, George W Bush has not yet called South Asian leaders to offer the full resources of his country for the rehabilitation of flood victims.
As always, the rich world is ready to defend its citizens while neglecting the plight of the poor in other parts of the world. Destruction of cosy houses in the Bavarian city of Passau evokes more concern in Geneva or New York than the displacement of millions of poor peasants in India. Flooded cellars of Prague’s national theatre mobilise incomparably more assistance than the destruction of Mexican villages.
Human life has different values, depending on where it is being threatened, a fact it does not take an 11 September to bring home. This reality is unfortunately accepted even by some of the poorest countries themselves. Viet Nam News, the national English language newspaper, carried long articles about the flood situation in Europe, while hardly mentioning that some poor Hanoi neighbourhoods on the banks of the Red River were under water.
In Nepal, the Red Cross was appealing for USD 1.6 million to help provide food, shelter, blankets, clothing and water purification tablets to flood victims. Truly a pittance, if one considers the magnitude of the tragedy. But then again, the implicit message in grants from the rich world is that poor countries should be grateful for anything they do get, even if the amount is insulting. Forget about the hundreds of millions of dollars being offered in the first stages of relief to Europeans.
While the International Red Cross aimed to raise USD 7.4 million in emergency aid for Central American countries devastated by Hurricane Mitch (1998), these very countries were paying USD 2.2 million every day in debt service to their creditors. When they pleaded to have the debt cancelled, the World Bank responded that “although there is a great deal of sympathy for the devastated countries, it would be unfair, impossible and ultimately irresponsible to end the debt burden and walk away”. No substantial help for the hurricane victims was ever delivered. Only a few years later, hundreds of thousands of people in Nicaragua and Honduras are, once again, on the verge of starvation.
Czech, German and Austrian emergency units and armed forces are already cleaning up the mess left by the flooding of summer 2002. Insurance companies are opening their wallets (in the Czech Republic, to the tune of USD 597 million), governments are talking about emergency relief funds, and newspapers are advising their readers on how to file insurance claims for the maximum amount of money (an estimated 130,000 Czech claims have already been filed). Just as the water did a few weeks earlier, sympathy and funds are now literally pouring into Central Europe, and the long list of threatened “architectural jewels” is mentioned over and over again in thousands of detailed reports from the flood frontlines. Czech and German emergency shelters are providing victims with hearty food, medical care and, above all, limitless sympathy.
The world’s poor are holding tight to the little bundles they have been able to rescue from their flooded homes and shacks, living in miserable conditions, mostly with no access to clean water or medicine. Does the rich, ‘white’ world have any genuine sympathy for those suffering beyond its high walls? The answer on the airwaves, and on the ground is: probably not.