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Eight magnitude earthquake leaves hundreds dead, millions displaced in Chile

Earthquake in Chile causes mass destruction and displacement. Islamist opposition orders the World Food Programme out of Somalia. Colombia’s election race begins as President Uribe denied third term. Northern Liberia under curfew following the outbreak of religious violence. Malaysian peace monitors arrive in the Philippines in an attempt to revive talks. All this and more in today's update.
Laura Hilger
1 March 2010

One of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded devastated much of central Chile over the weekend. The earthquake, 8.8 in magnitude, and its aftershocks have left 711 people dead and more than two million displaced. Tsunamis triggered by the earthquake have been reported as far away as Japan and Russia, but appear not to have caused serious injuries or damage.

The government has begun efforts to provide aid to the hardest-hit areas of the country, particularly the Maule region and the city of Concepcion. A curfew has been instated in the region, with troops deployed to assist rescue efforts and prevent looting. Additionally, the government is organising the free distribution of basic goods to those most affected.

The openSecurity verdict:  Despite the promptness of government action to clear airports and roads, many people are still without running water or electricity and ten of thousands have been forced to live outdoors in makeshift shelters and tents, due to the damage to an estimated 1.5 million homes. In Talca, only two of thirteen hospital wings remain standing, limiting treatment availability. As rescue efforts continue amid repeated aftershocks, the government response will need to be quick and precise if it is going to be effective in promoting the security and well-being of its citizens.

Field hospitals, temporary bridges, water purification plants, damage assessment experts, food aid, and rescue workers will all be necessary to help rebuild the country.

Economic experts have said the earthquake and its aftermath could have a significant impact on the Chilean economy, with economic damage estimated at roughly 15% of the country’s GDP.

To complicate matters further, current President Michelle Bachelet has only two weeks of her term remaining, before president-elect Sebastian Pinera takes office. It will be up to him to oversee continued aid and rescue efforts, as well as the country’s longer-term reconstruction.   For the millionaire Pinera, the first conservative elected to the presidency in Chile since the collapse of the bloody dictatorship of general Pinochet, the earthquake presents an opportunity to prove his cabinet’s commitment to alleviating poverty and hardship. Pinera may choose to accept the foreign aid that President Bachelet has mostly refused.

As has been seen Haiti, large influxes of international aid can complicate logistics on the ground, increasing chaos and hindering the ability to effectively distribute services. Food aid, in particular, can have a lasting impact if it undermines the domestic economy’s ability to provide for its people. The resilience of Chile’s lauded economic growth will be tested severely. Furthermore, international aid efforts can be a playground for geopolitics, as witnessed in Haiti by accusations against the United States as well as China and Taiwan.

In comparison with Haiti, Chile is well prepared for earthquakes due to its location and history. Building codes were revised following the 1985 earthquake, with an emphasis on reinforced concrete; while many older buildings, particularly historic monuments, have been destroyed, most newer buildings remain intact. Additionally, Chile has a strong National Emergency Office, which is coordinated at the national, regional and local levels.  The office provides advice on how to prepare for natural disasters, how to react when one strikes, and coordinates responses of fire fighters, medical teams, and civil defence.

While this earthquake will certainly have a lasting impact, Chile is well-positioned to deal with its aftermath so long as the transitioning government can maintain continuity in its response, work to rebuild both its infrastructure and economy, and provide aid and support to the millions of people affected by the disaster.

Somali Islamist opposition blocks UN food aid, asks WFP to leave

Somali Islamic opposition group, al-Shabaab, has ordered the UN World Food Programme (WFP) to end their operations and leave the country after halting food aid trucks travelling to refugee camps in Afgoye  over the weekend. The group says the food aid provided by the WFP has had a negative impact on local farming by forcing reliance on imports and the selling of local goods at unfair prices. Additionally, they accuse the WFP of distributing expired food, causing widespread illness, and using the programme as a cover for their political agenda.

In a new statement, al-Shabab said, “all of WFP’s operations inside Somalia are terminated and the organisation has been completely banned.” They add that anyone that continues working with the programme will be considered an accomplice to the organisation and the destruction of the economy.

In response, the WFP defended the programme’s impartiality and non-political nature. They estimate roughly half of the Somali population is in need of assistance due to the ongoing conflict in the country since the government’s collapse in 1991.  In January, the WFP pulled out of southern Somalia due to ongoing attacks and extortion by rebels, but had hoped to restart delivering food aid to the area later this year.

Colombian President Uribe denied third term in office

The Colombia Constitutional Court has ruled against a referendum that would allow current President Alvaro Uribe to run for a third term as president in the May elections. The decision has received mixed reactions, with many fearing a return to instability and violence. Uribe, whose popularity has remained above 60% for most of his eight years in office, is credited for recent successes in the government’s conflict with FARC and the ELN thanks to his Democratic Security, stabilising the economy, and drawing investment into the country.  

The decision marks the true start of the election race in Colombia. Favoured to win is Juan Manuel Santos, former minister of defence and the candidate backed by Uribe’s social national unity party. Additionally, Sergio Fajardo, the former mayor of Medellin respected for his actions against the narcoguerrillas, Rafael Pardo of the liberal party, and Noemi Sanin, another former defence minister, are gaining in the polls. Regardless of who wins, the next Colombian president will need to improve relations with neighbours, increase state provision in rural areas, and tackle rising unemployment in the wake of recession, if they hope to continue to gain ground against the Marxist insurgency and disrupt the drugs trade.

Religious clashes spark curfew in northern Liberia

Religious violence has erupted in the Liberian town of Vionjama, causing the government to impose a dusk to dawn curfew on the county of Lofa. A local government official claimed the violence was initially caused by an unconfirmed rumour that a mosque had been attacked in another regional town, sparking violence in Vionjama after the body of a child was found near a mosque, “with body parts extracted.” Officials have confirmed four related deaths and another eighteen injuries.

This occurrence is the third major outbreak of religious violence between Muslims and Christians in west Africa this year, following the deaths of 400 people in Nigeria in January and clashes in southeastern Guinea in February. The Liberia national police, the emergency response unit and the UN military mission are all deployed in the area, with the UN sending an additional team “to calm the situation down.”

Renewed peace efforts in the Philippines

Peace monitors from Malaysia have begun a new mission to oversee a ceasefire agreement in the southern Philippines, in a renewed effort to restart stalled peace talks. The head of the Philippine government’s peace panel, Ambassador Rafael Sequis, was hopeful that “with the deployment of the International Monitoring Team, peace talks are back on track,” adding that the presence of the troops in the southern territories would “strengthen security, civilian protection and ceasefire monitoring.” The Malaysian troops will be joined by soldiers from Brunei and Libya, with further offers of support from Norway and Indonesia.

Negotiations between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have been ongoing since 2001, in an effort to end four decades of conflict that has seen over 120,000 people killed. Peace panels will meet on Thursday in Kuala Lampur to discuss proposed drafts of a political settlement. A government official  hoped the one day meeting would pave the way for talks to“move forward to a more substantive agenda.”

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