Seanad Éireann - Volume 128 - 09 May, 1991

Adjournment Matter. - Bangladesh Disaster.

Mr. Cosgrave: I welcome this opportunity to raise this most serious and tragic disaster in Bangladesh. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Calleary to the House.

We are all aware of the situation in Bangladesh but, unfortunately, it appears all too clear that the developed world has learned little or nothing from the famine and previous tragedies, particularly of the mid-eighties. What seems particularly peculiar is that no real [1765] plan has been devised by the UN or EC authorities as to how such alarming tragedies can be efficiently and effectively responded to in a reasonably ordered manner. Once again we are witnessing an apparent fire brigade action to scenes of chaos and confusion with thousands of men, women and children being left homeless and facing death through starvation, malnutrition, typhoid, cholera and other diseases that are prevalent there.

In an article in today's Irish Independent they spoke about a map of misery — countries like the Sudan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Angola and Somalia all being affected by famine, water shortage and food shortage. While Bangladesh is my main concern all of us should be concerned about all these problem areas because they are mirror images of other countries. The reality is that the western and developed world have not reacted quickly enough in certain cases. To be fair to the Irish Government they have reacted reasonably swiftly. I welcome in particular the £200,00 allocation specifically for Bangladesh. Perhaps moneys raised by the national lottery could be used to make a once-off further allocation. I know the Minister is deeply concerned about that disaster and we are all grateful to the agencies, particularly Concern and GOAL, who do tremendous work in adverse conditions. It is only from time to time that this problem is brought home to us. A television station broadcast night and day to cover the Gulf War but here thousands of starving men, women and children have died or are left in squalor with little media attention. I would like to refer to an article in last Monday's Irish Times which reads:

The stench of death hung over Bangladesh's main port of Chittagong yesterday as survivors of the cyclone and tidal wave that killed more than 125,000 people struggled against hunger and disease.

Hundreds of victims sat forlornly holding out tin pots and plates for a handout of fried rice at a camp set up near the city's ruined airport.

[1766] Mr. Gashim Uddin told reporters he lost three sons and a daughter when a 20-foot tidal wave driven by 145 mph winds swept everything in its path last Tuesday.

“We ran to some high ground on the road and hung on to a tree. My wife held the baby and we all hung to that tree when the water smashed into us,” said Mr. Uddin (30), a rickshaw puller. “When it was all over my three children were gone and the baby had drowned.”

We in the developed world are not taking this problem seriously enough. This disaster seems to have gone to the middle and back pages of the newspapers. It is getting the same attention as relatively small news items at home. There is a certain cynicism there. We have to question the role of the media in such matters. The Gulf War was vivid television viewing. Yet, when hundreds of thousands of our brothers are left in squalid and diseased conditions, and going to their death, we seem to want to forget it and not want to be concerned. There is a danger that the situtations which we have seen in Bangladesh, the Sudan and Iraq will come to be accepted by us all as part of reality. I do not think that would be our wish or intention, but there is a danger as in the case of violence in Northern Ireland, that we begin to accept it as part of the way we are.

It is imperative that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister of State, Deputy Calleary, bring this matter up at every opportunity, at EC and UN level, and ensure that it is constantly on the agenda. It is not a problem that will go away. We should have learned more from the problems of the past and have a workable emergency plan available. A special meeting should be called to discuss the situation and to implement realistic plans. It appears at times that food and clothing are available but that transporting them to a particular area is a problem. I know that in the aftermath of a cyclone communications and distribution systems do break down but in [1767] this day and age we should be able to overcome that.

I thank the Minister for responding to the disaster but I think more has to be done. We are all aware that Bangladesh is poor before any problem affects it. It is a country that will need help continually. It is important that at United Nations level we keep raising this and that the various areas that are affected and in particular the one that I am referring to, Bangladesh, be dealt with and that a response be made. It is no good that we suddenly wash our hands of it. It is important that all of the problems that have been referred to and in particular the problem of getting food and clothing to these areas should be overcome. That should not be beyond the powers of the UN and civilised nations and particularly the wealthy nations because in this day and age wealthy nations have got to respond more generously to help their fellow man. There was tremendous praise for the response of countries like America and others when the problems arose in relation to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait some months ago. There should be doubly quick response from the civilised nations to the problems which have arisen. Saudi Arabia and King Hussein should have a certain responsibility in relation to the problems that they have been involved with in certain areas.

Despite great advances in technological and other fields, putting food on the table for people seems to be still beyond us. I would ask the Minister to note what I have said here. It is a problem that was raised in the other House last night but it is one that should be continually kept on the agenda. It is not a problem which I am going to continue talking about. We are all aware of it and want to do something about it. It is important that the agencies that are out there be given as much help as possible.

I heard a report from one of the people from one of the agencies that a situation of total chaos and confusion exists out there. This should not happen in this day and age. It should not be beyond the powers of the UN and its agency [1768] UNDRO to be able to respond better. We should be able to get help, food and medical equipment to the people, today or tomorrow because if we do not, by the weekend they will be dead.

I know the Minister is personally concerned with and has been responding to the situation in Bangladesh. There have been difficulties and Ireland on its own cannot get Bangladesh out of its problems. Where we can help, as a smaller country, is at EC and UN level. It is important that the Minister bring it up at every opportunity. When the situation eases down we must look back and learn from what has happened because we have not learned from what happened in the eighties. We all remember the Band Aid concerts and the problems in relation to famine, but it seems then it suddenly happens again and there is utter chaos. Ireland can play an important role in relation to this. Other countries must also do so. It is only by Ireland continuing to raise it at EC level and at UN level that we can overcome this gigantic loss of life. It is unfortunate that at times it seems to have been swept under the carpet. From day one when it gets page one headlines it goes on a couple of days later to being a small item in the papers.

I thank you, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, for allowing me to raise the matter. I ask the Minister to respond where he can in relation to what I have said. I thank the Minister for being here. There are no simple solutions but it is only by a combining of minds and a co-ordination of responses that we can overcome the problem.

Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Mr. Calleary): As Senator Cosgrave has said, this matter was raised last night in the Dáil. We are only now beginning to see the full tragic results of one of the worst disasters to hit Bangladesh in its history. A severe cyclone storm, which had been raging for some days previously over central and south bay areas of the Bay of Bengal, struck the coastal areas of south-eastern Bangladesh on the night of 29 April and [1769] continued into the early hours of the following day. The cyclonic storm, consisting of winds reported to have reached speeds of almost 200 km. per hour, was accompanied by a tidal wave of 25 feet high. It swept the entire coastal belt of Bangladesh affecting at least 15 million people and leaving many populated islands completely submerged for eight hours and more.

While, as Senator Cosgrave stated, planning should be in place to help in disaster situations such as storing food, it would have been almost impossible to plan against the particular disaster. Initially, the communications system with Bangladesh was destroyed, making it almost impossible to find out the extent of the damage. Even within Bangladesh the destruction of communications systems meant that very little information was available in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Communications have now been partially restored enabling us to have a more precise, although still far from complete picture, of the tragedy.

The death toll has officially been confirmed at over 125,000 and likely to rise even further. As many people were swept out to sea, it is unlikely that an exact figure will ever be reached. Local media estimates are reported to have put the total number of deaths as high as 150,000. Millions of people are in immediate need of the basic necessities of life — food, water and shelter.

The Government of Bangladesh reacted quickly and initiated a national relief operation. However, as it is an extremely poor country it could not cope on its own and issued an appeal for international assistance.

The Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Perez de Cuellar, has also appealed through the United Nations Disaster Relief Organisation (UNDRO) to the international community to provide relief to the victims of the cyclone. UNDRO has undertaken the principal co-ordinating role in the relief effort, which has initially focused on the worst hit areas of Chittagong, Cox's Bazaar and the Islands of Noakholi.

Other specialised UN agencies, such [1770] as UNICEF, WHO and WFP, are collaborating with UNDRO. The Bangladesh Red Crescent and the League of Red Cross Societies and many other NGOs are involved in the relief effort.

The population affected by the cyclone are also at risk from serious diseases such as typhoid, cholera and dysentery. Reports have also been published of a widespread epidemic of diarrhoea — one of the biggest killers of children in the developing world. People already weakened by hunger and deprivation, are more prone to dysentery and acute respiratory infections.

Adding to the misery of the stricken Bangladeshis is the continuing bad weather, including a tornado last week. Further strong winds up to 45 miles per hour have also been forecast.

The relief requirements identified are cash, shelter materials, food and medical supplies and appropriate transport such as helicopters and boats needed to assist with distribution to the scattered and still waterlogged coasts and islands.

A major disaster by its nature, causes chaos in communication and distribution systems which are among the first obstacles to be overcome by relief workers. In this instance the relief operation is particularly difficult to carry out given the geography of the affected area. Bad weather and shipping blockages in the port of Chittagong are also causing severe problems. However, reports indicate that the operation is becoming more organised and that more relief supplies are beginning to reach those in need. The international community has reacted swiftly and positively to the disaster. On the basis of the latest official information available to us allocations totalling in excess of $130 million have been made by governments, both to the UN agencies and to non-governmental organisations, in cash and kind. This figure is certainly increasing daily. It includes the ten million emergency aid package agreed by the EC and the £200,000 allocation, which Minister Collins announced last week in the Dáil would be earmarked for disaster relief in Bangladesh. We are also, of course, contributing to the ten million [1771] ECU provided by the Community through our contribution to the EC budget.

Part of the £200,000 disaster relief allocation will go to Concern and UNDRO. The remainder will go to other agencies whose applications for assistance are still being considered. The leading Irish agencies, which have long standing links with Bangladesh and have projects in the affected area, have responded to the crisis with their customary speed and effectiveness.

In total the Irish Government and Irish relief agencies are involved in providing relief valued at more than £1.25 million. Several agencies, I understand, are planning to issue appeals for Bangladesh. I am confident that the people of Ireland will respond with their usual generosity. UNICEF has already distributed 2,500 emergency water treatment kits, 56 major emergency kits adequate for nearly 300,000 people, 4 million oral rehydration packets aimed at combating dehydration caused by diarrhoea and a plane load of water purification tablets. The World Food Programme has allocated 7,000 tons of wheat and pledged 13,000 tons more.

Several Governments have provided helicopters enabling food drops to take place in otherwise inaccessible areas. Some medical teams are also getting through, including some Irish teams, seeking to prevent the much feared epidemics.

The enormity of the disaster and the fact that the total extent of the damage is still difficult to assess means that it is impossible to put an overall figure of what assistance is needed. It is reported that the Government of Bangladesh expects that $1.4 billion would be needed to help with the short term emergency needs which, of course, include the rebuilding of peoples' homes, following the destruction of over one million houses.

[1772] More money would be required for longer term rehabilitation and agricultural purposes. Experts report that nearly the entire crop in the worst hit areas has been destroyed and that salination from the tidal wave will severely inhibit regrowth. A high percentage of Bangladesh's coastal forest area has been destroyed and massive soil erosion is likely. The seriousness of this for Bangladesh which is extremely low lying and very heavily populated cannot be underestimated.

The most recent series of disasters brings home the extreme vulnerability of Bangladesh which, due to chronic poverty, is very ill equipped to deal with them. Although the early warning system and cyclone centres established prior to the tragedy were far from effective enough, experts have recognised that they did succeed in keeping the number of casualties lower than it would otherwise have been.

This indicates clearly that in a disaster prone country such as Bangladesh, the focus of aid programme must be, as pointed out by Senator Cosgrave, on preventive as well as restorative measures. International assistance must aim at reconstructing normal life in Bangladesh as quickly as possible. It must also help to improve protection against other severe cyclones, of which given the climatic condition and geographical location, it has to be expected there will be more.

In conclusion, I thank Senator Cosgrave for giving me the opportunity to put my views on the record of this House. I assure him that Ireland will continue to put before the European Community this very grave and disastrous situation and that the points he raised will be taken into consideration.

The Seanad adjourned at 4.40 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Friday, 10 May 1991.