'Acts of god' or products of the system?

March 16, 2007

In early February, rains that flooded up to 70% of Jakarta and displaced some 450,000 people began. Across Indonesia, 85 people died, according to a March 12 Agence France-Presse report. Bloomberg's wire service reported on March 6 that, according to government estimates, the floods caused a direct economic loss of "at least 5.2 trillion rupiah" (US$574 million), with indirect losses of 3.6 trillion rupiah.

Unfortunately, disasters of this magnitude and worse are almost commonplace in Indonesia. Two earthquakes on the island of Java between May and July 2006 left thousands dead and injured and millions more homeless. These pale in comparison to the tsunami that hit the province of Aceh on December 26, 2004. Up to 300,000 people were killed, hundreds of thousands displaced and 75% of Aceh's infrastructure was destroyed — necessitating billions worth of reconstruction and emergency aid. According to the UN's Rapid Environmental Assessment, damage from the tsunami amounted to some 97% of Aceh's annual GDP.

But is this massive toll simply a result of the unique geography and weather patterns of Indonesia? Certainly the archipelago's geography and location make it vulnerable to natural calamities. But the scale of the devastation wrought by natural disasters in Indonesia has much to do with the country's distorted economic and social development.

Colonialism's legacy

Indonesia typifies the plight of many poor countries. Dutch colonialism left the country with a stunted and underdeveloped economy based on the ruthless exploitation of the country's vast natural resources. The nationalist government of Sukarno, which came to power in 1945, attempted to reassert control over foreign investment and develop the country's social and industrial infrastructure. However, Sukarno was toppled by a US- and British-backed military coup in 1965, resulting in the slaughter of up to 1 million communists or left-wing sympathisers.

The Suharto dictatorship that succeeded Sukarno was a puppet government for Western capital. Indonesia's vast natural resources were offered up to giant transnationals with little or no regulation and taxation; civil liberties and workers' rights were virtually non-existent; and organising of any kind was ruthlessly repressed. Meanwhile, Suharto obtained billions in World Bank loans that conveniently "disappeared", leaving the country mired in debt.

Today, though Suharto is gone (having been overthrown in 1998 by a mass uprising), imperialist domination and underdevelopment remain. The country's economy is still dominated by mineral and fossil-fuel extraction and agriculture (mainly cash crops such as sugar and coffee), supplemented by light manufacturing.

Indonesia suffers from high unemployment; millions live below the poverty line. Jakarta, the site of the floods, is a typical Third World megalopolis. Twelve million people live in the city, with millions residing in vast, crowded slum areas blighted by poorly constructed homes lacking proper electricity and sanitation. These meagre dwellings are vulnerable at the best of times, let alone during extreme weather events. Government neglect has left the canal system and the sewerage system clogged and unable to cope with heavy deluges.

Deforestation in the surrounding areas also contributed to the crisis. This is a national problem. According to Rainforestweb.org, export-oriented logging has resulted in the decimation of 72% of Indonesia's original forests; the remaining forests are being logged at about 1% per year. Deforestation increases soil erosion and the risk of deadly landslides.

Social disasters

Indonesia is not an isolated case: in general, disasters hit Third World nations far harder than comparable disasters in the First World. A 1999 Christian Aid report, In Debt to Disaster, cited the example of a 1970 storm in the Bay of Bengal, which killed 300,000 people in Bangladesh. Similar scale storms in Australia around the same time resulted in less than 100 lives lost. Until Hurricane Katrina hit the US city of New Orleans in August 2005, it had been 25 years since a hurricane had killed more than 100 people in North America, while similar or higher tolls are a regular occurrence in the Caribbean and Central and South America.

A 2005 report by the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks (the UN's information agency for humanitarian crises), Disaster Reduction and the Human Cost of Disaster, noted that between 1994 and 2003 "deaths per reported disaster were on average seven times higher in countries of low development than in highly developed countries". IRIN added: "These figures say nothing of the impact on communities who have to care for and live with those maimed and rendered disabled by a disaster."

Although only 11% of the people "exposed to natural hazards" live in "low human development" countries, they account for over 53% of recorded deaths, observes Reducing Disaster Risk: A Challenge for Development, released by the United Nations Development Programme in 2004.

The disparity in disasters' impact on poor and rich countries highlights the fact that in the 21st century, given that there is no lack of technology and know-how in ameliorating the effect of disasters, natural disasters are really social disasters.

In Debt to Disaster argues that the factors that turn a "natural hazard into a human disaster [is] a chain reaction of social vulnerabilities created by long-term climate change, environmental degradation, poverty, social inequality, population pressure, rapid urbanisation and international debt". These vulnerabilities are the direct result of the Third World's legacy of colonial and neo-colonial exploitation.

"Disasters are closely linked to poverty; they can wipe out decades of development in a matter of hours, in a manner that rarely happens in richer countries", notes Disaster Reduction. Third World governments desperate for help to deal with disasters will often accept emergency "loans" that will only enslave the country down the track.


For example, of Australia's much-touted $1 billion in aid after the 2004 tsunami, half was a loan to Indonesia, adding to the country's already-crippling US$139 billion foreign debt (according to 2001 figures from Jubilee Research). Governments in a state of "limited sovereignty" will more easily agree to sweeping policy reforms such as "speed sell-offs" of public infrastructure. In turn, the devastation wrought by the pursuit of such neoliberal economic policies can reduce a country's ability to cope with future disasters.

However a nation's wealth, or lack of it, does not by itself determine how severe the social impact of a natural disaster will be. In August 2005, New Orleans, a city in the world's richest nation, was hit by the category five Hurricane Katrina. The world was shocked to see images of a flooded and destroyed city, of hundreds dead and desperate citizens demanding food and shelter and armed soldiers patrolling the streets in scenes reminiscent of Third World disaster zones.

The impact of Katrina, and the gross neglect shown by the Bush administration before and after the disaster, can be contrasted with Cuba — a Third World country that, despite suffering a devastating economic blockade by the US, has an outstanding tropical storm management system. According to a 2004 Oxfam America report, Weathering the Storm: Lessons in Risk Reduction from Cuba, the country suffered six major hurricanes between 1996 and 2002 and yet only 16 people died. In 2004 a category-five hurricane hit Cuba destroying 20,000 homes, but there was no loss of life.

Cuba's revolution

A 2002 Oxfam report concluded: "[Cuba's Civil Defence Force, early warning system, well-equipped rescue teams, emergency stockpiles and other resources] are impressive, but if they were the only determining factor, then other wealthier countries such as the United States would have lower disaster death tolls. Thus, it is equally important to consider the role played by other 'intangible' qualities in making the Cuban system work so well.

"These include community mobilization, solidarity, clear political commitment to safeguard human life and a population that is 'disaster-aware' and educated in the necessary actions to be taken in the event of a disaster."

Cuba's achievements are a product of the country's socialist orientation following its 1959 revolution — looking after the needs of the majority of people instead of the profits of big business, and building a system of popular power based on a politicised working class.

The world faces the prospect of an increase in the number and severity of natural disasters, thanks to global warming. The inherent inequality of capitalist development means that it will be the poorest countries, which have gained least from the capitalism's two-century-long fossil-fuel splurge, that will bear the greatest burden. What is needed is the construction of new societies, where human need is prioritised over corporate profits, and an international social and economic order based on solidarity, not exploitation.

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