Third World lessons for the First


THE devastating fires in California and Australia have had an added horror, in that they have not simply consumed relatively scattered rural properties, they have actually reached the very edges of Los Angeles and Sydney.

The iconic Australian city is this week covered in a thick haze of smoke from the inferno licking at its suburbs. Exhausted firefighters are being relieved by crews brought in from other parts of the country. Continuing high temperatures and strong winds threaten to fan the blaze. Though New South Wales is the hardest hit, there are also serious blazes elsewhere, all brought about by a three-year drought. Some parts of the country have just recorded their driest ever nine months.

Environmentalists may argue many tree species require fires to help them to regenerate. However, the destruction on this scale has shifted the argument from an arboreal to a human needs. Indeed there is a clear note of panic, even in official announcements. In Victoria, issuing a “Code Red” alert a senior firefighter warned residents to evacuate part of the state. “Don’t be there” he insisted, “If a fire occurs, you will not survive”.

In America and Australia, both wealthy nations, the prolonged dry spells and consequent disastrous widespread fires, have caused much hand-wringing and an urgent focus on the consequences of global climate change and all that might be done to mitigate whatever processes are in play. Yet in their alarm and despair, people in the First World could learn a much from those in the Third World, who are no strangers to appalling consequences of natural events. Monsoon rains and floods regularly wreck hundreds of thousands of hectares of farmland in Bangladesh. Major earthquakes and volcanic eruptions affect millions. Drought in central Africa is now reaching horrifying levels as the Sahara expands its almost waterless grip over a vast area spanning ten countries.

For many people in the Third World, crisis is not and has never really been an exceptional event. Countries that do not enjoy First World budgets, that have to scramble to make ends meet and cannot borrow greedily in the international markets, have to cope as best they can when a fresh catastrophe strikes. The outside world may plow in emergency aid but all too often such laudable efforts are uncoordinated and misapplied. There remains a strong case for a standing international rescue force, with the training, equipment and mobility to deploy within hours of a major disaster.

There is, however, something else that all too often assists the people of Third World countries to overcome calamities; this is their resilience. Wealthy states measure their resilience in terms of the physical and technical resources they can unleash to cope with a natural disaster. And there should be no belittling the bravery of the American and Australian fire fighters who have been battling blazing forests. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which the outrage and anger of those citizens whose homes go up in smoke demonstrate a lack of resilience. They think this sort of thing simply should not be happening to them. They demand action. Unfortunately when crops are swept away in yet another Bangladeshi deluge, the best they can do is perhaps reach into their pocketbook, yet the challenges facing Dhaka, Sydney and Downtown Los Angeles are actually the same.