Friday, February 5, 2010

When natural disasters are only human

Feb 4, 2010
When natural disasters are only human
By Andy Ho, Senior Writer

AMONG the most embarrassing reports from Haiti are those about its elite. The Jan 12 quake which destroyed much of Port-au-Prince spared its wealthy eastern suburb of Petionville. The mansions there were simply better constructed than most other buildings in the capital.

For Petionville residents - mostly fair-skinned descendants of the French colonialists who controlled the slave plantation economy until independence in 1804 - the genteel life continues. Meanwhile, the black denizens of the shanties in downtown Port-au-Prince who survived the temblor are still on the streets. Relief aid isn't arriving fast enough and most of it will go to Petionville residents, in any case, 'through their government connections, trading companies and interconnected family businesses', as The Washington Post noted.

This unequal distribution of the consequences of the quake is quite typical of natural disasters. In ancient times, a disaster - from dis + astro or 'bad star' - was believed to involve the baleful forces of nature striking humans. But though natural hazards may be unavoidable, they become tragedies only when human decisions result in the most vulnerable bearing most of the suffering.

There are various economic and political factors which cause the consequences of natural disasters to be unequally distributed. But only limited progress has been made in analysing them, which could be one task for the multi-disciplinary Institute of Catastrophe Risk Management that Nanyang Technological University launched last month.

In the 1970s and 1980s, disaster studies focused on how human extractive activities like logging led to deforestation, the silting of rivers and so on. In the 1990s, experts recognised how the consequences of such tragedies were non-randomly distributed by race and income.

In the last decade, their causes were also recognised to be non-random too. Thus, almost all toxic emissions in the United States and Japan come from 5 per cent of their economic activity, almost all located in the poorest communities. Who makes these location decisions? The rich and powerful, of course.

Because natural disasters are assumed to impact just those who happen to be caught in their paths, researchers neglected to look for the social, economic or political factors influencing their impact on people. Instead, their focus has largely been on emergency preparedness, disaster recovery and the like.

The places that are historically prone to quakes or hurricanes are already very well known. Thus when people build in such locations, they do so hoping not to be struck in the near future. Or perhaps they believe they will survive the disaster should it occur.

It was Yale sociologist Charles Perrow who introduced the notion of 'normal accidents'. That is, given the extent to which we depend today on complex systems - power generation, for example, or sewage disposal - multiple catastrophes just waiting to occur are actually built into the fabric of our lives.

Professor Perrow further argues in The Next Catastrophe that instead of assuming a natural disaster is naturally a tragedy, we should look for human causes that turn it into one at any particular location.

On Aug 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept down on New Orleans, breaking the levees on the Mississippi river. Some 1,300 people perished in the floods that destroyed 69,000 houses and racked up US$100 billion (S$140 billion) in losses.

In 1965 and 1969, respectively, hurricanes Betsy and Camille took the same path as Katrina did but caused much less damage. Betsy saw a quarter of the city flooded but only 76 people perished. Stronger levees were then built - but Katrina flooded 80 per cent of New Orleans.

While Katrina stories usually focus on the broken levees, the fact of the matter is Louisiana had more public funding for levee construction than any other state in the five years before Katrina occurred. What mattered more was the building of a 122km long, ramrod straight, deepwater canal that directly connected the salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the freshwater of the Mississippi River.

Completed in 1968, it allowed sea water to penetrate very far inland. The salinity killed plants in the wetlands around the river that had long buffered New Orleans from storm surges. Between 1965 and 2005, one million out of four million acres of wetlands were lost thus. Sans wetlands to sponge up hurricane storm surges, the straight canal provided an unobstructed path for and amplified the Katrina flood waters. The levees broke and the rest is history.

Researchers have established that the authorities knew before building the canal that it could destroy the wetlands and raise the risk of hurricane flooding. But it was built, nevertheless, to transform river town New Orleans into a seaport. Over the decades, however, the crooked Mississippi river still carried 250 times more freight than the straight canal. The latter was prone to silting and was re-dredged frequently, which obstructed traffic.

The background to Katrina shows how it was human actions that turned a natural hazard into a tragedy. Prof Perrow argues that spreading out populations now concentrated in hazardous regions will reduce the risks in case of another Katrina.

But the poor have few relocation options. Those trapped in New Orleans as the flood waters rose were mainly poor blacks with no transportation out.

Because Katrina led to significant silting, big vessels can no longer use the canal. By July last year, a rock barrier had been constructed to plug the canal, which will be closed. But should another hurricane make landfall before the wetlands are restored, which could take decades, the poor will bear its brunt - again.


Bangkok sinking
February 04, 2010
Nirmal Ghosh hears experts warn that the city is unprepared for climate change.

GOVERNMENT policies and regulations in Thailand still "do not take climate change into consideration at all" despite the clear risk to Bangkok, according to Dr Anond Snidvongs, one of the country's foremost experts on climate change modeling.
Most designs and plans for infrastructure and buildings, remain based on the premise that "everything is constant" he said at a panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) last Monday. 
Dr Anond, director of SEA START — a research unit dedicated to predicting the impact of climate change in south east Asia — pleaded for an open and wide debate and exchange of ideas on how to secure Bangkok against the imminent risks posed by the combined forces of sea level rise, land subsidence and extreme storms.
With him on the panel was Prof Cor Dijkgraaf, an expert in urban planning currently based in Rotterdam in the Netherlands — a country below sea level that survives only because of its extensive system of dikes.
Prof Dijkgraaf drew some interesting comparisons between the Netherlands and Bangkok. And he had some interesting old pictures as well — of parts of old Bangkok under water decades ago before the city’s drainage system was upgraded.
If Bangkok wanted to prevent similar scenes in the future, "you have to start thinking of this now," he said.
"You can do all the research, make all the calculations, but if there's no political will you can't get it done. You have to ask if you can afford not to take measures to avoid the cost of doing nothing in the coming years," said Prof Dijkgraaf.
Much of Bangkok is at sea level or about 1 metre above it, and the land is steadily subsiding in nearby coastal zones, and in parts of the city itself. At the same time the level of the sea is rising. In a worst case scenario within the next 40 years, vital installations and tens of thousands of homes and offices and factories will face major floods.
While listening to Dr Anond I recalled the fund-raising dinner for which I had attended in December 2009, where Governor of Bangkok MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra had spoken about the challenges of the future.
I went back to the recording and sure enough he had mentioned climate change and the threat to Bangkok.
"For Thailand the most worrying problem a the moment is rising sea level which will definitely accelerate the rate of coastal erosion," he said.
MR Sukhumbhand said Thailand has lost 113,000 rai (around 45,000 acres) of coastal land over the last 30 years. In the province of Samut Prakarn alone, a few miles south of Bangkok, land loss had been to the tune of 10,000 rai (around 4,000 acres).
I remembered travelling in a boat in the area with Dr Anond in 2007, purring along through water several metres deep where a road had once been, complete with the telephone poles sticking up out of the waves.

The waters of the Gulf of Thailand lapping at the telephone poles of Bang Khun Tien, which were on dry land only 20 years ago. This low-lying region is fighting a losing battle against the rising sea level, clearly seen in this photo taken in 2007.
PHOTO: Nirmal Ghosh

Disturbingly, MR Sukhumbhand continued to say: "By 2050... large parts of Bangkok will be under water. We need a combination of short term and longer term measures (for drainage and coastal defence), which of course require massive investment — which we have not even begun to do."
At the FCCT, Dr Anond made another interesting observation — that the rate of subsidence of part of the coast, both on the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman sea, had increased after the December 2004 earthquake that had created the devastating Asian tsunami.
Up to 1.16 million buildings in Bangkok — 900,000 of them residential — were at risk from the worst case scenario of a coincidence of land subsidence, sea level rise and a storm surge, he said — and "ongoing efforts are not enough" to cope.
Proposed measures to deal with it include a large storage dam, a barrage across the mouth of the Chao Phraya river, storm surge barriers across the upper Gulf of Thailand, and diversion channels.
"Even in the scientific community we don't believe we have sufficient certainty to advise on what to do and what not to do," he acknowledged.
"But people in Bangkok need to start thinking of the future."

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