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Desperately poor are the real flood victims

This article is over 10 years, 11 months old
As floods wreak havoc across the globe, Mike Gonzalez looks at the role of poverty in the dramatically different experiences of flood-stricken countries
Issue 2235

The pictures from Brazil, where well over 600 people have already died in the floods and mudslides, are all too familiar. However it was the floods in Australia that got most of the attention.

More than 20 people, sadly, died in Australia—a genuine tragedy. But the Australian prime minister was in Queensland within 48 hours, promising some £3 billion for reconstruction.

Australian disaster victims were largely insured, and much of the reconstruction money will probably go to the big insurers.In Brazil there is no question of insurance.

The rains loosened rocks and mud that careered down the hillsides where the very poor throw up their fragile shacks of board and mud.

Here the number of deaths is always approximate, because it takes time to find the buried bodies and because the population is so transitory.

The desperately poor who always take the brunt of these disasters can only scrabble to build some kind of shelter­­—and then wait.


In Sri Lanka, also hit by floods, a million people have been driven out of the makeshift camps where they were living after years of repression and forced removal by the government.

For all the talk of “natural disasters,” flooding is made far worse by deforestation and the plundering of water tables by industry and commercial agriculture.

Dams add to the problems. They are an inefficient way of guaranteeing water supplies but extremely profitable for multinational corporations who build them with World Bank loans.

Even in Australia, a city like Brisbane is suffering the results of a speculative building boom where housing developments grew up in areas vulnerable to flooding.

Six months ago the press was full of harrowing images of the floods in Pakistan.

Estimates of what was needed to deal with the damage hit the £10 billion mark—a lot of money, but less than half the annual cost of the war in Afghanistan.

Today, tenant farmers driven from their homes by the floods sit among the ruins, waiting. And they still have to pay rent to their wealthy landlords, even though they can plant nothing.

When disasters do occur, the difference between Australia and Brazil or Pakistan is that in Queensland there is an infrastructure, roads, emergency services, health systems.


Brazil may be the eighth largest economy in the world, and Pakistan may be the recipient of billions of dollars worth of aid and subsidy.

But none of it will go to those who need it. Haiti has shown us that in the most horrific way.

After the floods come malaria and cholera. Now, as ever, the poor will try with their inadequate means to address the impact of weather—while they wait for others to act.

They could be waiting a very long time.

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