Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tomorrow's Disasters Are Preventable Today

I think most people, if they saw their child playing near a fire or in some other dangerous situation, would do something about it before an accident occurred. They wouldn't just watch and then shell out the money for hospital fees once an accident had occurred. But donor money is usually spent on clearing up after a disaster has hit.

Many children (and quite a number of adults) in developing countries are severely burned because most cooking is done on open fires, close to the ground. Donor money is sometimes forthcoming for the expensive surgery and skin grafts required by people who have suffered burns. But it's not often you come across substantial projects to provide people with alternatives to cooking on open fires, using mainly wood or charcoal.

Burning wood and charcoal accounts for a very large proportion of the carbon emissions from developing countries. Forests are fast disappearing and wood is getting more expensive and less viable as a fuel source. The use of wood and charcoal is part of a massive environemntal disaster. There are cheaper alternatives, such as solar cooking, biogas and the use of fuel briquettes made from combustible materials.

There is a lot to be gained from not burning wood and charcoal. There are the environmental benefits and safety benefits to consider. Also, people in close proximity to wood and charcoal cookers suffer from respiratory problems, one of the top killers in developing countries. Alternative fuels are cheaper, even free. And their use can reduce the time and effort taken to collect wood and produce charcoal.

But rather than see aid money go into proejcts that have these multiple advantages, we continue to direct it to big disasters. The children that suffer terrible burns, that we wish to see treated, shouldn't have to suffer these burns in the first place. The plastic and reconstructive surgeons should be concentrating on people who are not suffering from preventable injuries.

Similarly, money for surgeons and health resources is spent on reconstructing the faces of children affected by noma, which affects children suffering from malnutrition. Food security and proper nutrition would prevent many other illnesses and health conditions, in addition to noma, and would also reduce deaths, especially among infants and young people. Those who don't die from illnesses arising from insufficient food and nutrition still suffer stunted growth and retarded mental development. These are all avoidable.

The current debate about land grabbing in developing countries, where greedy multinationals are buying up huge tracts of land to grow food for rich countries, is an idle exercise if it does not go any way towards reducing this phenomenon substantially. By the time this land has been ravaged by industrial scale farming and contaminated by genetically modified organisms, it will be too late. What is the point knowing now what the consequences will be if we are not going to do anything about it?

Much of the land being grabbed is destined for biofuel production. The ridiculousness of starving people producing crops to fuel the cars of well fed people, far away, seems to be lost on us. We, the people benefitting from the increasing impoverishment of the poor, may be willing to see our governments giving large sums of aid money to starving people in the future, but we don't seem to want to do anything to prevent the circumstances that will eventually leave people starving.

Land grabbing, especially for biofuel production, results in food, water and other vital resources being exported from poor countries to rich countries. If we prevent the land grabbing now, we won't have to send aid money later to the disaster we are so busy creating.


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