12/23/2005

The year of unnatural disasters - Yahoo! News

For many scientists, the deep pain from this year's string of disasters is to a very large degree man-made.

In the space of a year, a tsunami, an earthquake, brutal storms and floods have claimed more than 300,000 lives and cost at least 100 billion dollars in damage. Humans prefer to view these catastrophes as the result of misfortune, of randomness, of the unfathomable forces of Nature, of the whim of gods or of God. But the exceptional disasters of the past 12 months raise a far more difficult question.

Could mankind be to blame?

For many scientists, the deep pain from this year's string of disasters is to a very large degree man-made.

From the Mississippi delta to the mountains of
Kashmir and the beaches of the Andaman Sea, governments failed in almost every case to respect the basic laws of sustainable development.

In a nutshell, these rules are: don't house people in places that are at risk to disasters -- but if you do, respect natural defenses; keep the population growth to sensible limits; build wisely and ensure high safety standards in construction; and set up effective alert and response networks in the event disaster does strike.

"We like to talk about natural disasters because it puts the blame on Mother Nature... (but) it's nonsense, it misrepresents what the causal factors really are," said Anthony Oliver-Smith, a doctor of anthropology at the University of Florida at Gainesville.

"Obviously, there are big, big hurricanes and there are big, big earthquakes that will create a certain amount of damage. But the degree and level of destruction is really much more a result of society than it is of the natural agent."

The October 8 earthquake that struck Kashmir, killing 73,000 in Pakistan and 1,400 in India, exposed shoddy construction standards in which homes and schools became killers and the lack of emergency backup in a vulnerable seismic region.

The Geological Survey of Pakistan described the temblor as "a wakeup call."

"Construction codes are non-existent, or criminally violated," it said.

"It is feared that if mushrooming construction of inferior quality continues unchecked in the cities, half the newly-constructed buildings will crumble in 20-30 years with just a moderate earthquake hitting the region."

In the case of the December 26 2004 Asian earthquake and tsunami, which killed at least 220,000 people, the toll was amplified by the burgeoning development on the Indian Ocean coastline, where villages, towns and tourist resorts have sprung up in the past decade.

This was most notable in Thailand, where hotel complexes were built right on the beach, thus putting them right in the path of a big wave, and mangroves and coral reefs, which would have dampened much of the impact, had been destroyed.

"Indiscriminate economic development and ecologically destructive policies have left many communities more vulnerable to disasters than they realize," said the Washington-based environmental group the Worldwatch Institute.

A classic example of this was the monsoon flooding that hit Mumbai in August, temporarily transforming the city of 15 million into the so-called "Venice of the East" where streets were drowned and more than 400 lost their lives.

Experts blamed the tragedy on decrepit drainage dating back to the British colonial era, explosive growth in slum housing and the loss of green areas and river channels that used to soak up rainwater seepage and then take it out to sea.

"A myopic view of development and misuse of no-development 'green' zones has virtually killed the city," said Chandrashekar Prabhu, an urban planner.

Such folly is not exclusive to a developing country.

On August 29, Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans -- a delta city built below floodlevel and whose coastal wetlands, which would have been a useful buffer against storm surge, had been destroyed by developers.

Katrina left a trail of a thousand dead across the US Gulf coast and an economic bill variously estimated from 80 billion to 200 billion.

It was the peak in an Atlantic hurricane season that broke records for duration, the number of storms -- 26 tropical storms, 14 of them hurricanes -- and severity, with three reaching the topmost category of five on the Saffir-Simpson intensity scale.

The tsunami and quakes were natural events whose impacts were magnified by human mistakes. The big, troubling question is whether Katrina and Co. were spawned by man.

Climate scientists are loath to pin a single event, or even a season, to the greenhouse-gas effect.

Despite this, a small but increasing number of experts are venturing the opinion that the 2005 hurricane season was no accident, for it coincides with ever-rising sea temperatures that fuel bad hurricanes, and a year set to be the warmest ever recorded.

The year of unnatural disasters - Yahoo! News

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