Friday, February 5, 2010

Predicting the Predictable

Often in natural disasters, it's not the disaster itself that causes widespread injury, loss of life and damage to property. Where people are well off enough to protect themselves and their property against whatever disasters may occur, far fewer people suffer. Therefore, the magnitude of natural disasters in developing countries is often measured in people killed, injured or displaced. But in developed countries, the magnitude is usually measured by insurance claims for damage to property.

There are exceptions, of course, but generally where people are vulnerable, natural disasters have a high human cost. Where people are less vulnerable, property is more likely to be the main loss. Developed countries, such as Japan and the US, experience natural disasters without anything like the human costs experienced by developing countries, such as Haiti. The hurricane that devastated New Orleans is not an exception just because it happened in the US. A lot of the people most affected were poor, vulnerable and marginalised.

When a natural disaster hits a vulnerable country, the disaster itself may not have been entirely predictable, at least, not by people in that country who were able to do anything about it. But it is pretty predictable that, when a country has little infrastructure (especially water and sanitation), minimal health services, low levels of food security and the rest, most disasters will have a huge human cost. Insurance claims may well be negligible for people who have very little to insure and no money to insure with.

Kenya and most other Sub-Saharan African countries are like Haiti in many ways. They have been treated as pawns in the political and commercial games of various Western countries; they have few social services of any kind and little or no resilience to any kind of disaster; they have huge debts and widespread poverty, poor health and malnutrition. We don't know what disasters await them, we just know that there will be disasters and that the consequences will be severe. Perhaps when some disaster strikes, there will be massive press attention, pledges of money, influxes of aid agencies driving white four wheel drives and resolutions to cancel debts.

But all these pledges and other post disaster phenomena won't reduce the immediate impact of the disaster. The human cost will be high. The press will bemoan the fact that the country is so poor and infrastructure is so bad and debts are so high and politicians are so corrupt and whatever else they tend to bemoan in developing countries when it's too late. The amounts of money that are pledged, and even the amounts that actually reach the country, may be far higher than the amounts that were previously needed to strengthen the country's capacity. But that doesn't result in money being spent on increasing the capacity of developing countries to increase their resilience.

Kenya has what could turn out to be a pathological attachment to maize, a non-indigenous crop introduced by the colonials because it's cheap and it's easy to grow large amounts on small areas of land, it fills you up, although it has little nutritional value. This pathological attachment could be compared to Ireland's staple food in the decades before the Great Famine, though I suspect the potato may be a bit more nourishing (or perhaps I'm biased). The potato is not indigenous to Ireland and eventually the inevitable happened. The ideal conditions came together for potato blight that wiped out most of the country's crop.

Much of the currently used agricultural land in Kenya is covered with crops that can not be used for sustenance, such as tea, sugar or coffee. Much is used for non-food crops, such as sisal or flowers. And much of the food that is grown is maize. For many years, maize crops have been threatened or have even failed because of the dependence on rain fed crop growing. But the country still plants mostly maize and it's still mainly rain fed.

The question is not whether disaster will strike in Kenya, it is when and how bad it will be. If the crops just fail in places where there is not much rain, several million people will be affected. If places that usually get a lot of rain have problems, several million more will be affected. Some countries around Kenya, even many areas in Kenya, have recently seen army worms attack, and they can obliterate entire fields. And there are other pests and factors that can take a large area by surprise. Maybe this year most people will survive, maybe not.

But one thing is certain: millions of people are vulnerable. And they are vulnerable in more than one way. If a crop fails, they risk starvation. If the aid agencies come in, the food may not get to people in time because of the infrastructure problems or because of widespread corruption. Or people may die of whatever diseases start spreading, unchecked because of the terrible health service. There's a hair's breadth between Haiti's circumstances and Kenya's circumstances.

It's now that the press should be clamoring for education, health, infrastructure and other social services to be improved, now that pressure needs to be put on the government to deal with corruption, now that individual people need to stop depending on rain fed agriculture, now that they should grow (and consume) things other than maize. And now is the best time to cancel the huge debts that developing countries have been arm-twisted into amassing for decades. Recognition that these circumstances make people vulnerable to inevitable disasters doesn't need to wait until it's too late.


1 comment:

Simon said...

It seems Kenya is worrying about its disaster preparedness, or at least, the UN's Integrated Regional Integrated Networks (IRIN) are.