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Natural disasters sans frontiers

Massive natural disasters need a coordinated international response because the repercussions do not stop at the borders of Nation-States.

india Updated: May 18, 2008 23:08 IST

Two of the world’s most closed societies hit by natural disasters of terrifying magnitude have reacted at sharp variance with each other. The cyclone that has killed over 100,000 people in Myanmar and left countless homeless and injured has not forced the secretive junta to open up to foreign aid. The sad part is that the Myanmarese government simply does not have the wherewithal to manage things on its own. This means that the situation will worsen. China, on the other hand, devastated by a massive earthquake that has claimed about 50,000 lives, has responded with far greater alacrity both internally and when it comes to accepting aid.

Beijing has admitted that it needs drinking water, food and body bags, among other necessities, as it goes about its massive relief and rescue operations. Myanmar’s junta is clearly alarmed that letting relief workers into the country will reveal to the world just how oppressive its rule has been and how badly off people are. So it has accepted relief, but not workers in an effort to control disaster management on its own. Unlike people in other nations, the Myanmarese react to their plight with a quietism that the junta has exploited all these years. China’s response could be driven by several reasons, the most obvious being that it cannot handle such a tragedy on its own. After all the flak it has faced over the Tibet issue in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, it cannot afford to shut itself off from the world. Beijing’s reaction is of a piece with how nations respond to natural disasters in this day and age. It is clear that no nation, howsoever powerful, can cope with such mishaps and their aftershocks on its own. There is the question of sanitation, rehabilitation and economic and geographical refugees just to name a few. Even the United States, after initially suggesting that it could handle the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on its own, had to eat humble pie. Pakistan, too, tried the go-it-alone route after a quake some years ago but found it simply could not manage.

There is no two ways about it. Massive natural disasters need a coordinated international response because the repercussions do not stop at the borders of Nation-States. A situation like the one in Myanmar, where the junta is trying to save its own skin as people are dying, is reprehensible. The international community must be far more sharp and proactive in condemning this wilful neglect of human lives and property. China’s pragmatism must be commended as its quick response has served to reduce the quantum of lives lost. Of course, there are worrying issues like why schools and nurseries caved in while many government buildings did not. But these can be addressed later.

The important thing is to rescue as many people as possible, especially in areas where torrential rains are making relief operations difficult. It was perhaps the 2004 tsunami that struck India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Philippines that showed up in stark relief that no nation is an island. Then, too, a rapid international effort helped the nations totter back onto their feet in a short time. A message clearly lost on Myanmar but which is heard loud and clear in China.