Aid Finally Arriving to Devastated Guyana
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Council On Hemispheric Affairs
Monitoring Political, Economic and Diplomatic Issues Affecting the Western Hemisphere
Memorandum to the Press 05.11
Word Count: 1400
Tuesday, 1 February 2005
Aid Finally Arriving to Devastated Guyana
• Over the last five weeks floods have ravaged Guyana, killing six, causing enormous property damage as well as displacing thousands and affecting over half of the country’s population.
• While there has been some criticism of the international community’s response to the tragedy, relief efforts recently have gained much needed, if belated, momentum.
• Amid continuing rain, possible dam breaks and the threat of disease, the situation within this poverty-stricken nation remains very unstable.
Since the final days of December, relentless downpours have battered the South American nation of Guyana, causing severe flooding. While the death toll currently stands at only six, it is estimated that the inundations have affected more than half of Guyana’s roughly 700,000 citizens. After evacuating numerous coastal villages, nearly four thousand people remain housed in over 43 public shelters as the rain continues and various diseases threaten to break out in the region.
During a January 22 press conference, President Bharrat Jagdeo bitterly protested the slow pace of international aid, saying “We have pledges, but as you know, sometimes the international agencies have their own way of working. They insist on coming down and doing an assessment.” Guyana’s highly regarded ambassador to Venezuela, Odeen Ishmael, echoed the president’s sentiment when he criticized the reaction of the Caribbean Community, telling COHA on January 31 that “the response from CARICOM is disappointing so far, considering that every time there is a hurricane disaster in the region, Guyana is among the first to respond tangibly.”
The U.S. is undoubtedly sensitive to such claims following the harsh criticism it received for its initial “stingy” response to the Asian tsunami disaster. Some observers also feared a token U.S. reaction in response to Guyana’s negative stance toward the U.S.-installed government now ruling Haiti. The State Department was well aware that President Jagdeo has aligned Guyana with a faction of CARICOM that took a hostile position over the ouster of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and has refused to lift Haiti’s controversial interim government’s suspension from the regional body. Guyana has a long tradition of left-of-center governments, starting with the country’s George Washington, Cheddi Jagan, who was succeeded on his death in 1997 by his highly respected wife, Janet Rosenberg Jagan. In spite of Guyana’s relative poverty and powerlessness, it remains one of the most respected democracies within all of Latin America. As a result, the country has never been one of Washington’s favorites, and at best has generally suffered benign neglect.
In an interview with the Associated Press, USAID’s Guyana director defended Washington’s reaction to the country’s plight by saying that U.S.-donated supplies—which include 10,000 blankets, hygiene kits and water cans—already had begun to arrive. Indeed, in a telephone interview with COHA, Guyana’s ambassador to the U.S., Bayney Karran, stated that he is “quite satisfied with how the Inter-American system has responded” and stressed that U.S. “assistance is open ended.” A USAID spokesman also reported that seven boats and other supplies, which add up to roughly $170,000, will arrive today in Guyana, and more money is being processed for reconstruction efforts.
While some observers felt that the rest of the international community’s initial response was sluggish, it seems that recently, efforts have begun to pick up. Even Venezuela, with which Guyana has long had a territorial dispute, has provided large quantities of medicine, food, water and personnel to assist in rescue and reconstruction efforts. According to Ambassador Ishmael, “the response from Venezuela has been overwhelming.” He also noted that Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname have promised to contribute to the relief efforts. For its part, Ecuador has loaned a C-130 cargo plane to the World Food Program to transport enough food to serve 10,000 people for an entire month. Additionally, Brazil has supplied its neighbor with much needed food and Japan, the European Commission, the Canadian International Development Agency and China have donated to local relief efforts. Rallying around the disaster, the sizeable Guyanese Diaspora has also made generous contributions. Fortunately, President Jagdeo’s People’s Progressive Party and the opposition People’s National Congress Reform, led by Robert Corbin, have cooperated fully to ensure that aid gets distributed as effectively as possible.
Still, much more work needs to be done. President Jagdeo has asked the U.S. Southern Command to donate small boats, which are in great demand. Also badly needed, according to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), are chlorine testing kits, drainage pumps, generators and the replenishment of drugs and medical supplies. An official at PAHO, while emphasizing that the organization is satisfied the level of response to the health sector appeal for humanitarian aid, also noted that "more pressing needs come after international interest has faded."
Under the Radar
With international attention continuing to focus on the colossal relief effort in response to last month’s Indian Ocean tsunami, the Guyana flood crisis was quite unexpected. In the words of Ambassador Karran, “Guyana is a country not accustomed to suffering natural disasters.” Nor is the country sufficiently experienced in dealing with the health dangers posed by the aftermath of the flooding, such as a lack of potable water, which has emerged as a serious threat to hundreds of thousands of local inhabitants. Brian Grogan of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs noted that the flooding “destroys sanitation facilities and corrupts the drinking water supply.” He went on to state that diseases, such as diarrhea and malaria, can spread easily and UNICEF is working with the government’s Health Task Force to provide rehydration salts, water containers and thousands of buckets to those at risk. PAHO also has highlighted the need for access to clean water and functioning health services.
Since the end of December, more than forty inches of rain has fallen in a country that averages only eight inches of it in January. According to reports by USAID, drainage specialists are saying that it will take at least thirty days for the floods to recede. These estimates may vary according to the weather, and with rain predicted to continue throughout the week, the misery and disruption already being faced by the average Guyanese is likely to continue as well. Making matters worse, several of the country’s dams are in danger of giving way, which could flood coastal villages again and “really compound this tragedy very seriously,” according to Ambassador Karran.
A Nation Struggling with Poverty
As a member of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, Guyana has received hundreds of millions of dollars in debt relief since 1999, which helped to greatly reduce a foreign debt that had reached $1.4 billion in 1998. Still, the country remains one of Latin America’s poorest, with a GDP growth rate in 2003 of -.6 percent. The nation’s flooding now puts the 35 percent of the population that currently lives in poverty at even greater risk. Additionally, with health services already overwhelmed with the task of treating flood victims and stemming infectious outbreaks, providing care for the nation’s growing number of HIV-infected citizens—in 2001 it was estimated that 18,000 people in this small nation had contracted the disease—also cannot be ignored.
Guyana’s floods come on the heels of last September’s Hurricane Ivan, which pounded the Caribbean and brought with it a path of deadly destruction from Grenada to Florida, as well as Tropical Storm Jeanne, which flooded Haiti, killing several thousand people and displacing hundreds of thousands. While this most recent catastrophe cannot be compared to the recent Asian tsunami, it does serve to reemphasize that the Western Hemisphere is far from immune to natural disasters. While touched by the now quickening pace of aid, local authorities hope that the promised donations to Guyana are fulfilled in their entirety so that the country can begin the long struggle back to some kind of normalcy. Perhaps those affected by this tragedy will take note of the words of Ambassador Ishmael when he says, “Guyanese are a determined people, and we will conquer this adversity…and rebuild our country—even if the international community does not deliver as it should.”
This analysis was prepared by David R. Kolker, COHA Research Fellow.
February 1, 2005
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