A Tale of Two Floods Shows the Disaster Gap Between Rich and Poor

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A resident evacuates his flooded home by kayak in Bundaberg, Australia, on Dec. 29 Credit JONO SEARLE / AFP / Getty Images

So far 2011 has not treated Australia well. Vast areas of the county’s northeastern Queensland state have been hit by some of the worst flooding on record. Tremendous rains—thanks in part to an unusually strong La Nina weather pattern—fell in late December, triggering floods that have affected half the state’s 715,000 sq. mi. More than 200,000 people and at least 22 towns have been impacted by the rising waters, with thousands of residents forced to evacuate. Though the worst of the rain had stopped before the end of December, the floodwaters in some areas are still rising, with the town of Rockhampton left completely cut off from the rest of the country, accessible only by helicopter and boat. Even the waters themselves are dangerous, with snakes and crocodiles (this is Australia, after all) swimming for their lives and taking refuge in swamped houses. “In many ways, it’s a disaster of biblical proportions,” Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser told reporters on New Year’s Day.

Economists have yet to fully reckon the economic cost of the flood, but it’s likely to run into the billions of dollars—and Australia won’t be the only country affected. Queensland is home to fruit and cotton farms that supply the domestic and international market—and with at least 13% of the state’s cotton farms underwater, the damage will be lasting. But even more expensive will be the effect on the state’s coal exports. Queensland supplies nearly half the world’s supply of coking coal—used in the production of steel—and at least a dozen mines have been flooded by the rains, leaving dwindling coal stocks for export. Depending on how long the floods last and how quickly Australia can repair the damage to mines and shipping infrastructure, the price of Australian coking coal could rise as much as $30 or $40 a ton. “A prolonged disruption may lead to higher coal prices,” analysts from UBS Securities wrote in a research note today.

Yet despite the economic cost of the floods, despite the thousands of people who’ve had to flee their homes, despite the sheer size of the disaster—spreading over a stretch of Australia larger than France and Germany combined—the death toll has thankfully remained low. So far at least nine people have died due to the flood so far, though the toll will likely rise somewhat as the disaster unfolds. And while that’s nine too many, it’s useful to compare what has happened so far with Australia’s floods to what was the great undercovered natural disaster of 2010: the devastating floods in Pakistan.

In case you’ve forgotten—and I think many of us did, judging from the paltry international response to the catastrophe—this summer record-breaking monsoon rains struck much of Pakistan, at one point putting approximately a fifth of the country’s landmass. or 62,000 sq. miles, under water. The flood directly impacted about 20 million people, and many of them are still without shelter, facing the country’s harsh winters. Farms and roads were destroyed—as were an estimated 10 million heads of livestock—leaving a desperately poor country even poorer, with the World Bank estimating that the flood cost Pakistan $10 billion. (That would be more than 6% of Pakistan’s 2009 GDP.) Worst of all, nearly 2,000 Pakistanis died because of the flood, and the number could be much higher. As TIME’s Omar Waraich found when he visited the flooded district of Shikarpur in August, the damage was hard to believe—as was the government’s repeatedly botched response to the disaster:

The floodwater took Ehsan Ali and his family by surprise. “At first we thought that the water wasn’t so serious,” says the farmer, 44, who worked on the rice fields that stretch across Shikarpur district. “Then they suddenly made an announcement in the mosques, telling us to run for our lives. A lot of water was coming.” As the water crept across the farms of Pakistan’s province of Sindh, drowning thousands of acres of crops, tens of thousands gathered whatever possessions they had and fled.

The evacuees now languish in makeshift shelters. Many have settled on the side of dirt roads, shading themselves from the blazing sun by propping a bed over their heads or sheltering beneath a wagon. Others are clustered under a tin awning by a derelict railway station or in similarly run-down school buildings. Doctors say they are already seeing outbreaks of scabies and diarrhea among the displaced. Women have had to go into labor in public places, giving birth in classrooms they share with other families, for example. When relief goods arrive, always from a private donation, there is a panicked scramble to gather whatever little food each person can grab within the seconds available. With each passing day, the fury at the government’s neglect mounts

It’s that last sentence that reveals the true difference between a biblical Australian flood that will likely kill a handful of people and leave thousands as temporarily homeless and a catastrophic Pakistani flood that killed some 2,000 people and left millions as refugees, with no end in sight. Australia’s government will almost certainly be able to handle the flood with minimum loss of life, and put the country—and its coal industry, for that matter—back on the path to recovery fairly soon. It did so in 2008, when floods in eastern Australia stranded thousands and damaged wheat exports, leading to rising food prices worldwide.

By contrast Pakistan’s weak government thoroughly botched its response to the 2010 floods, failing to provide relief to the most hard-hit areas and allowing Islamic extremist groups to fill in the vacuum. And the ultimate result of that failure wasn’t just a higher death toll and more people left homeless. The misery of the flood contributed to an overall sense among Pakistanis—long simmering—that the central government in Islamabad was corrupt and incompetent, no more effective of disaster response than it was in stemming the country’s economic misery or dealing with Islamic insurgents. Today the government appears on the brink of collapse, following the assassination of Governor Salman Taseer and the resignation of a major Islamic party.

Of course, the widely divergent abilities of the Australian and Pakistani governments to deal with a major disaster isn’t the only reason the death toll and long-term damage from the two floods is so varied as well. Pakistan’s is far more densely populated than Australia (more than 500 people per sq. mile, compared to 7.5 in the land of Oz), which simply puts more people in harm’s way. And the two nations are worlds apart in economic development—Pakistan’s GDP per capita is $955, compared to more than $42,000 in Australia.

Extreme weather events will happen—and in a warmer world, they seem likely to happen more often and with greater severity. But an extreme weather event only becomes a natural disaster when it intersects with people, economic capital—and often, bad governance. This year’s Atlantic hurricane season was actually one of the most active in years, yet because relatively few of those storms made landfall and caused damage, the season actually seemed light. Last week’s blizzard in the northeastern U.S. showed what kind of havoc a storm can cause when the public response is lacking—even in a city as rich as New York. Weather events and catastrophes will almost always take a far bigger toll on poorer countries—just compare last year’s Haiti quake, which left as many as 200,000 dead, to the far stronger quake in Chile, which killed less than 1,000. That means aid—including aid that can be used for disaster prevention before the next catastrophe—will be even more important in the future. (And it makes the international response to Pakistan’s horrific floods even more pathetic—just $16.36 has been donated per person affected.) But economic development will be vital as well, because unless poor countries like Pakistan can develop—and boost their governance along the way—the disaster gap shown by these two floods will only grow.