Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 15 January 2007

Floods and Iraq---a case of  “Oh no, not again!” 

Last week, it seemed that everyone’s favourite phrase was “Oh no, not again!”
This applied both to the renewed floods in Johore, and the unveiling of the Bush administration’s “new Iraq policy”, which turned out to be not so new.


“Oh no, not again!”   That was the phrase on the minds of every disheartened victim of the floods that struck Johore again last week.

And the same phrase that must have stuck on government officials, volunteer rescue team members and the ordinary Malaysian.

It was heart wrenching to see thousands of people still recovering from the first wave of floods having to abandon home, property and livelihoods so soon again in a bid to escape the second wave.

The new crisis shows that the floods are not a one-time phenomenon that will rarely recur.  It confirms that the prevention and management of flooding must quickly become a new top-priority national goal.

What has happened in the Southern and Eastern states can also easily do so in the central states, Kuala Lumpur and the North.  

The same quantity of rain can fall onto the same types of silted rivers, unprotected forest and hilly areas and inadequate drainage that exist throughout the country.  Thus, Malaysians anywhere are vulnerable to the floods and their disastrous results. 

Hopes of achieving the lofty targets of the five-year plan and of Visit Malaysia Year will be sadly be washed away if floods become more frequent.  Surely it is something we don’t want to become a normal part of Malaysian life.

Thus, each state has to assess not only the level of preparedness for managing floods when they arise, but the status of the conditions that give rise to floods.  Such as the state of the watersheds and highlands, the extent of soil erosion, the siltation of the rivers, the adequacy of drains and canals in the urban areas.

And action should be directed not only at improving how to cope with floods, but how to enact and enforce laws to conserve forests, hills and water catchment areas, prevent soil erosion, ensure responsible practices by developers, de-silt the rivers, deepen and widen the drains, and act against those that flout regulations that must be strengthened.

Hopefully the floods in Johore will remind us that protecting and managing the environment cannot be neglected in the feverish pursuit of growth, for in the end this will boomerang back not only on the economy but on our very lives.

On the global scene, the big news last week was United States President George Bush’s new Iraq strategy.  The same phrase, “Oh no not again!” was also seen on many lips as Bush announced a “surge” of 20,000 new American troops would be sent to Iraq.

With that, he was brushing aside the highly-publicised advice of the US political and military establishment which have been pushing for the start of US military phase out from Iraq. 

Bush showed once again that he wants to stick to his own course, however discredited that may be in the eyes of his own public and elite. Whether the new Democrat-controlled Congress can stop the Bush plan remains to be seen. 

Meanwhile, the world is bracing for another year of US military aggressiveness. 

Besides the Iraq plan, another sign of this last week was the American bombing of a district in Somalia, aimed at killing certain named terrorists. 

As has often happened previously, the targeted terrorists were not hit, while many villagers were killed instead, generating fresh anti-American sentiments. 

The U.S. government seems able to literally get away with murder in the name of targeting terrorism. 

Imagine what would happen to any other government (except that of Israel which seems to share the same privileged immunity) that were to commit a single similar act.

On the economic front, there was perhaps the first official forecast made in the new year that 2007 will see a global economic slowdown.

Last week, the United Nations issued its World Economic Situation and Prospects 2007 report, predicting a slowdown in the world economy, mainly as a result of the weakening housing market in the United States.

Overall growth of the world economy would drop to 3.2% in 2007, compared to 3.5% in 2006 and the all-time high of 4% in 2005.

The forecast is based on the assumption that there will be only a mild adjustment in the housing markets.  But it also offers a pessimistic scenario, with US growth slowing to 1% and world growth to 2.2%.

“In addition, a collapse of housing prices in major economies would provoke a crisis in the mortgage markets and set in motion a deflationary adjustment in the global imbalances, enhancing the risk of a major upheaval in financial markets,” warns the report.

In simpler language, the UN is predicting there will probably be another rather good year ahead but also warning that there is a risk of a major slowdown and global financial turmoil – whose consequences no one can foretell with any certainty.