In Mozambique, Fast Floods and Slow Relief

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CAPE TOWN, South Africa: Forget about "Ask not for whom the bell tolls..." — when it comes to a natural disaster in an impoverished African country, it takes some pretty gruesome images and a dramatic death toll before the industrialized world even hearsthe bell. As death by starvation or drowning looms for tens of thousands of Mozambicans trapped atop trees and buildings, President Joaquim Chissano noted politely that the international response to a catastrophe two weeks in the making has been somewhat sluggish. "I believe that what was given to us was given with all heart from people who are trying to help," Chissano told an interviewer. "But it is true that this help came slowly in small quantities. I'm happy that this help came, but I would say it has not been enough." Although some 10,000 people have been rescued over the past 10 days by military helicopters from neighboring South Africa, there are simply not enough helicopters in the southern African region to deal with the crisis, with the result that tens of thousands more remain stranded, even as new floodwaters surge down the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers and a second cyclone hovers menacingly offshore.

Harrowing images of those passed over by the overladen rescue choppers — and such heart-rending moments as a woman giving birth in a treetop only minutes before being whisked to safety — have spurred the West into action, with Washington leading the way by sending up to 900 troops with helicopters and transport planes on an extended relief mission. Britain is sending aircraft and small boats, and France is providing helicopters and medical personnel. A herculean international relief effort may well save tens of thousands of Mozambicans, but some of the troubling issues raised by the flood will remain. There was never a shortage of military equipment in Mozambique — and most other African countries — during the Cold War, when Africa was still deemed strategically important by both superpowers. Indeed, it was the Cold War that fueled the 16-year civil war which pushed the former Portuguese colony past the brink of ruin, from which it had begun to make a remarkable recovery in the post-Cold War years. But even before the flood, the war-shattered economy that had barely regained its feet was staggering under the burden of some $8 billion of external debt, which costs $1.4 million a week simply to service. Like a biblical deluge, Mozambique's flood may have challenged the international community to more closely define the humanitarian dimension of globalization. But in the meantime we can be sure that it would not have taken two weeks for aid to arrive if a similar catastrophe had occurred in a strategically important nation, such as, say, Turkey.