Mother Nature does not discriminate.
Viewers of news channels and websites this week can be forgiven for confusing well-to-do suburbs of Australia’s third largest city and the shanty towns of the hillsides of Rio de Janeiro. Look at the aerial pictures of both locations and there is little to tell them apart.
The weather has reduced both to lakes peppered with roofs and treetops.
In Australia and Brazil, but also in Sri Lanka and the Philippines, the weather has killed hundreds of people and wreaked havoc on millions more, regardless of their health, status or bank balance.
Some meteorologists say the atmospheric phenomenon La Niña is behind the recent floods in the southern hemisphere as cooling ocean temperatures produce an unbalanced distribution of rainfall across the Pacific.
Others insist that while La Niña may be to blame for what has happened in Queensland, there is no evidence to link her to the similar events elsewhere.
Science may take us some way to understanding what Nature is doing but Man is not yet at the point where he is able to stop it. It has even been argued that Man is making it worse.
It is in the response to these disasters that we can see the difference between fully-industrialised, emerging and developing economies.
Australia has the material resources to recover the fastest. A relative lack of poverty should enable those who have lost their homes to be safely sheltered and temporarily re-housed.
She impressed many with her news conference on Thursday, in which she painted a thorough picture of the problems on the ground and a clear account of what was being done about them. She also appeared sincere, breaking down in tears at one point, and appealed to Queenslanders’ sense of community and never-say-die attitude. At Bligh’s side was someone who could translate her words into sign language, meaning even the deaf or hard of hearing were kept informed.
In terms of the human cost, the week’s deadliest disaster came in Brazil. More than 500 people are known to have died in mudslides and thousands are still trapped.
The illegal construction of cheap and dangerous housing over many years has incensed many local residents. Accusations are also heading in the authorities’ direction for not intervening.
New Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who is new enough to the job to escape any great portion of the blame, has herself criticised the housing policies of local officials.
She has promised the equivalent of around 350 million euros in emergency aid and medical supplies but many have been calling for prevention rather than cure.
Sri Lanka will need to rely on help from abroad for its recovery effort. There, the floods threaten to spark a food crisis
If La Niña lasts several years, which is what meteorologists are telling us, then countries around the Pacific can expect more floods like these. And as long as too many people are crammed into housing built illegally in vulnerable locations, natural disasters will continue to have a devastating impact.
We cannot thwart the actions of Mother Nature. We just have to make sure we get better at seeing them coming and dealing with the consequences.