Wednesday, May 21, 2008


CYCLONE Nargis, packed with winds and speed in excess of 193km/h, ripped through the Southeast Asian state of Myanmar last week. When it cleared, the country lay prostrate, its terrain devastated, and numerous villages and settlements destroyed. Thousands of its citizens were killed, with over a million and half homeless and destitute. This was a national tragedy of immense proportions, with social, economic, infrastructural and psychological effects that are bound to linger for many years to come. The Irrawaddy River is to Myanmar what the River Niger is to Nigeria. Both rivers dominate the national landscape; both flow for thousands of kilometres from the north to the south, where they branch into several mouths, forming an extensive delta before emptying into the sea. Nigeria has the Niger Delta, and Myanmar has the Irrawaddy Delta; and each is a major source of national income for the country. The Niger Delta produces oil, while the Irrawaddy produces rice, one of the country's major sources of income, which it exports to Nigeria and other countries. And it was in the Irrawaddy Delta that Cyclone Nargis struck, with devastating consequences for the people, their homes, their rice farms, their livelihood, the export economy, and the national income. Nigerians can well imagine the consequences for the nation if such a disaster were to occur in the Niger Delta. The disaster has had such devastating consequences because Myanmar remains one of the poorest countries in the Southeast Asian neighbourhood. At independence from Britain in 1948, the country radiated confidence in the trajectory of its development. Part of that national confidence manifested itself in the decision to quit what was then the British Commonwealth, while other countries like India and Nigeria chose to remain in the organisation. Prime Minister U Nu symbolised that national confidence in the way he transformed himself into an international statesman as one of the founders of the Non-aligned Movement.However, like Nigeria, Myanmar's developmental trajectory was arrested by major ethnic and political insurrections, which devastated the country for the next 30 years, and by the military, which seized power in 1962. Since then, the military has dominated the country's political, economic and social landscape, keeping pro-democracy groups, symbolised by the Nobel Peace Laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, away from power, in detention, or in exile. When pro-democracy groups, with Buddhist monks in the vanguard, launched the Saffron Revolution a few months ago, the regime suppressed the demonstration with unmitigated violence and brutality.There is no better indication of the brutality and totalitarian tendencies of the ruling military junta in Myanmar than the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father, U Aung San, is acknowledged as the founder of modern Myanmar, has spent 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest. For all intents and purposes, the regime is motivated by the fear of losing its grip on power; by the fear of the people's will and the expression of their freedom; and by the fear of democracy. The regime is simply suspicious and fearful of the domestic and international environment.That fear is quite evident in the way it has responded to offers of aid to the victims of Cyclone Nargis by foreign countries, donor agencies and humanitarian groups. Natural disasters are a global phenomenon. Humanity is one, even if it is divided against itself along ethnic, racial, political and geopolitical lines. Political and ideological differences should dissolve in times of great national emergencies. Our differences should be subsumed by our common humanity so that victims of disasters can get the succour they need. Hence, when disasters like that caused by Cyclone Nargis occur, countries often put their differences aside to offer aid to the victims. That was the experience of all the 14 countries that were affected by the Tsunami disaster of December 2004. The Myanmar situation is a metaphor of what citizens in many countries of the world are confronted with. There is suppression, oppression, poverty, disease and hunger in the midst of plenty in several places attributable to dictatorship. The importance of early warning in disaster preparedness cannot be over-emphasised, especially, in a region like Southeast Asia, where cyclones and earthquakes are prevalent. Myanmar, like the other countries in the sub-region is prone to episodes of deadly cyclones that recur almost on an annual basis. The authorities in these countries, therefore, ought to be responsive in monitoring the development of the depressions and their trajectory to prevent undue loss of lives. The authorities in Myanmar were warned two days earlier that Cyclone Nargis was headed for the country but the warning was apparently ignored. The Indian Meteorological Department reportedly spotted Nargis on April 28 in the Bay of Bengal and closely kept watch on it. The office regularly gave updates about its trajectory to all the countries in its path, which were presumed to have prepared for the impending disaster. Seven days notice from the time the cyclone was spotted was certainly more than enough for the authorities in Myanmar to take appropriate measures to evacuate the people and prepare for the storm. The negligence of the country's authorities, unthinkable as it were, was responsible for the massive loss of lives and destruction of property. This was corroborated by the reaction of many angry Yangon residents who said "they were given vague and incorrect information about the approaching storm and no instructions on how to cope when it struck".The result was that the storm crashed ashore and caught the people unawares. Most of the victims were swept away by a wall of seawater from the deadly storm that crashed unto the coastal residential towns and villages. Entire villages were practically destroyed and reduced to debris. The worst hit area is the lower Irrawaddy delta largely used for rice cultivation. Cyclone Nargis left in its aftermath mounting disaster, death, pain and injury. The entire lower delta region was submerged.In spite of the extent of damage the country has suffered from the disaster; in spite of the fact that almost two million or more of its citizens face imminent hunger and disease; in spite of the obvious limitations of the internal mechanisms to deal with the disaster, the regime has resisted most offers of aid from the outside world. It has refused visas to workers of humanitarian agencies and rebuffed offers of aid from countries like the United States, which it considers its enemies. Even agencies of the United Nations charged globally with humanitarian work in disaster zones have not fared better. Instead, the regime in Myanmar prefers to proceed with a referendum on a new constitution, which will further strengthen the role of the military in national politics.Bombarded by television images of the sick, the hungry and the dying, and the apparent helplessness of the government to ameliorate the suffering, the world has come forward with offers of aid. Immediate help is available for the victims but the ruling junta in Myanmar has remained adamant in its opposition to foreign aid. It apparently considers politics more important than the humanitarian needs of its citizens. This is most unfortunate. The United Nations, the international community, and most particularly, Myanmar's neighbours in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have a responsibility to prevail on the government to allow aid to get to the victims. The citizens of Myanmar are legitimate and important members of the human family and should not be allowed to suffer unnecessarily. Certainly, not when so much help is readily available. Cyclone Nargis once again brings to the fore the predicament the earth faces as a result of climate change. While some countries, particularly in the developed world have embraced the challenge by way of research and developing measures to mitigate the effects of climate change, the poor countries in the underdeveloped world, particularly in Africa, which invariably are the most vulnerable are doing virtually nothing in that regard.The authorities in Nigeria have a lesson to learn from the Myanmar disaster. We have decried in our previous editorials the apparent nonchalant attitude of the authorities at all levels towards the issue of climate change. We have cause to restate that Nigeria is highly vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather both from the north and the south. From the north is the rapidly advancing Sahara desert and from the south is the threat posed by ocean surge. We are also exposed to the ravages of tropical storms. In the event of a tropical cyclone with the capacity of Nargis hitting Nigeria's coastal districts, particularly, the Niger delta, where the oil and gas facilities are located, the country would grind to a halt as oil revenue, which is the backbone of the economy will cease.The authorities should initiate appropriate action and set up structures to tackle the issue of climate change as it affects the country.

No comments: