When Floods Connect with Poverty

31 Oct 2012

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The news from the camps of flood victims   is certainly unsettling.  Reading the anxious faces of displaced women and children, it is clear that the mood in the camps is understandably that of impatience. From the various locations, the victims yearn for basic needs of life. This is to be expected in an environment of crippling poverty.

The flood disaster has, doubtless, exacerbated the poor condition of the victims.  The enormity of the dislocation of those who have been forced out of their normal abode should be imagined not only in material costs, but also in moral terms.  Let us not, for once, downplay the humanitarian dimension of the disaster. The tragic story is that of some of the most vulnerable members of the society.

  Hundreds of thousands of people are facing daily challenges of food, water, shelter, healthcare and sanitation in the inevitably crowded camps. The response of the rest of society also speaks volumes about the perception of our collective humanity. As the federal and state governments grapple with the situation it is important to reflect on the loud statement that   this disaster has made about the magnitude of poverty in Nigeria.

The reflection should   begin with the obvious lack of capacity for disaster management. Far from drawing undue parallels, compare the way the United States is confronting the flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy to the response of government to the recent floods in Nigeria.  Sandy has claimed at least 28 lives and may cost the American economy up to $20 billion by the time the storm is over. This is despite the evident preparedness the government and people for the hurricane. There have been efforts to evacuate people from the most dangerous zones. The value placed on human life in the management of the disaster in America is particularly noteworthy.

Those who live in disaster-prone areas   were frantically told not to " be stupid" and leave areas that the storm could hit and wash away. Immediately the disaster began to unfold, the sense of urgency on the part of President Barack Obama and the entire country became unmistakable. Yet, Sandy is hitting the American coasts hard with huge losses in its trail. So you could just imagine the human and material costs that could be recorded in an atmosphere of unpreparedness! The lack of preparedness itself is symptomatic of   the levity with which issues of environment are treated at the policy level. There is no way a nation in which environmental policies are an afterthought would be able to deal effectively with disaster of floods.

In this clime, it does not seem that environment is understood   as a core issue of development. The most obvious expression of this is to be found in the priority accorded to sanitation by the government and the people especially in the urban areas.  Some state capitals stink in dirt.  Drainage systems are blocked as if the situation is helpless.  It is the policy that would determine the volume of resources, time and energy devoted to problems of environment.  The reality of the world today is such that what a government does or fails to do in the realm of environment would invariably impinge on other developmental efforts. If issues of environment rank as priority, when flooding inevitably happens the response of the government and the public would be more effective.

There is a nexus between the impact of the disaster on the individuals and their respective material status. In other words, there is the factor of what Nobel Laureate in Economics, Amartya Sen, describes as "capacity deprivation".  This is a feature of poverty. The disaster might have affected both the rich and the poor, but the rich have a greater capacity to deal with the situation. If the rich man's country home is submerged, he probably has another house in the city in which to live. The poor villager is most unlikely to have the luxury of such an alternative. If the destruction of farms results in famine, it is the poor that is sure to starve in the aftermath of the flood disaster. It is the poor that would be confronted with   the existential questions as a result of the disaster.

There is the temptation for the public attention to be diverted to other things as the flood recedes.  The nation will move on, as they say. This should not be the case because of the humanitarian connection between poverty and the disaster.  The rest of us should not only spare a thought for the   poor victims; we should also   take whatever practical steps possible to assist them in this hour of need.   The victims should never be abandoned to their fate in the various camps.  It is at least   good that they have been rescued; it would even be better if the process of their rehabilitation should be pursued to the end. Here we are talking of the condition of people who undeniably need help to tide over the unfavorable condition.

The condition of the poor victims in the camps should be kept in focus by the government. The federal government has given the states and some agencies   grants to help alleviate the condition of the poor victims. Already there are indications that the grants might be a   far cry from what is needed to take adequate care of the victims. In this respect, the appeal to the public’s sense of compassion by the government should be heeded. Some individuals and organisations have done well with donations of items and money to the victims.

There should be more of such expressions of solidarity with the victims.  The co-chairman of the presidential committee mobilizing funds in support for the victim, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, has promised transparency in the activities of the committee. That is reassuring in the circumstance. The committee should be more active in the performance of this important national duty. It is obvious from the grim pictures emanating from the camps that more resources are needed in aid of the victims.  For the committee to meet its target of N100 billion, the public response to the government's call for complementary funds should be more than what we have witnessed since the committed was inaugurated a few weeks ago.

Flood disaster may be traced to a natural cause, but poverty indisputably has a social origin. The matter becomes more disastrous when the damage done by floods is reinforced by poverty. That is why an organised society must never be helpless in the face of a disaster. The poor response to a flood disaster is a measure of policy failure. The solution lies in the mix of policies that would eradicate poverty in all its dimensions.

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