Bangladesh cyclone: Billions for war, a pittance for lives

May 15, 1991

By Norm Dixon

Western governments are unconcerned about the massive tragedy of the Bangladesh cyclone, judging by the meagre amount of aid they have pledged. Ten days after the calamity began, a paltry $150 million worth of emergency aid had been offered.

Yet, only a few months ago, tens of billions of dollars were available to wage war in the Middle East. Welcome to George Bush's New World Order.

In the early hours of April 30, the south-eastern coastal regions of Bangladesh were devastated. For nine hours the area, home to 15 million of Bangladesh's 115 million people, was lashed by 235 kilometre per hour winds and tidal waves towering six metres. Hundreds of thousands of people (estimates range from 300,000 to 500,000) were swept to their deaths. Another 12 million have been left homeless.

Many of the populated islands off the coast were completely inundated for up to eight hours. These areas were inhabited by desperately poor villagers with nowhere else to eke out a living.

Survivors are living in the open, subjected to daily thunderstorms and gales, without drinking water, food, clothes or medical care. The International Red Cross says 4 million survivors are "at serious risk" of death by starvation and disease unless massive international relief aid arrives very soon.

According to CARE Australia's national director, Ian Harris, a massive outbreak of cholera is imminent; typhoid and other water-borne diseases are already evident. "With more than 12 million people homeless and without clean drinking water, thousands of unburied dead plus thousands of rotting animal carcasses polluting ponds, reservoirs and other water sources, the conditions are ripe for a major, and possibly a globally unprecedented, cholera outbreak."

Bangladesh will continue to suffer severely for many months and years. The country had not yet recovered from floods in 1987 and 1988. The storm struck just as the rice harvest was due to begin. An estimated 1 million tonnes of rice reserves were swept out to sea. Contamination by salt water will damage the soil for years. Virtually all the livestock of the region has perished. Much of the important prawn farming and fishing industries, which generate export income, have been destroyed.

The disaster adds to the economic setback Bangladesh suffered from the Gulf War. More than 100,000 workers were forced to return from the Middle East to join the ranks of the unemployed. Bangladesh relied heavily on the earnings sent home from these workers — it is estimated that up to a million family members were supported in this way.

US President George Bush triumphantly told the world following the defeat of Iraq that a New World Order based on "freedom", "humanity" was dawning. However, when he faced the opportunity to prove that the new order would be different from the old, such fine sentiments evaporated.

In response to the desperate plea of the Bangladesh government for US$1.8 billion in urgent aid, Western nations pledged paltry sums: the EEC found $15 million; the US promised $20 million in cash and medicines; Britain managed only $5 million, Japan $2.5 million, France just $65,000. Australia at first announced a piddling $250,000 but this was later increased to $2 million after a widespread outcry.

The grudging and pitiful amount of aid offered justifies the statement by John Hammond, executive director of Oxfam, America in relation to famine in Africa: the US, he said, "can find any amount of money anywhere to fight a war" but is unable "to fund a war against hunger".

The London-based Agency for Cooperation and Development also points out the cruel irony that the world's most powerful countries can "mobilise, transport and feed over 500,000 military personnel ... when time and again they are incapable of doing so when famine strikes in Africa".

The funds offered to help save millions of lives in Bangladesh, aid the Kurdish refugees and relieve the famine threatening 20 million people in Africa pale into insignificance beside the mind-boggling amounts the US-led "coalition" was able to muster to obliterate Iraq's economy, slaughtering 150,000 people in the process.

On the first day of the war alone, the US spent $650 million (the annual budget of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is $530 million). Joe Camilleri, in the book After the Gulf War: For peace in the Middle East, estimates that, by the time allied forces return home, $100 billion will have been spent. The 43-day air and ground war alone squandered $80 billion.

Of this amount, Japan provided $10.7 billion and Germany $6.6 billion. The Australian government allocated A$250 million to pay for its involvement.

In Bangladesh, a dozen clapped-out helicopters attempt to deliver inadequate supplies to a few hundred people while millions more are on the verge of death; just 4000 kilometres away in Saudi Arabia, hundreds of helicopters are available for war but not for peace. US commanders could organise 6000 bombing raids every day against Iraq, but not a single allied aircraft can be found to help the people of Bangladesh.

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