The year of unnatural disasters
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 defences; 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
"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
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 realise," said the Washington-based environmental group the
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
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
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.
Others urge caution, saying it could be years before we get
confirmation as to whether 2005 was just a freak year for storms, part
of a natural cycle for hurricanes, or the start of a man-made
phenomenon. Oliver-Smith says it is too early to say whether the string
of catastrophes of the past 12 months has dented mankind's obsession
with economic growth regardless of the cost.
"It's a tough call to say that people's consciousness is being
changed by these disasters," he said. "We will do anything rather than