It’s been a tough year of natural disasters. Since last year’s Sumatran earthquake and subsequent tsunami wreaked havoc on Asia and parts of East Africa, killing hundreds of thousands of people and displacing millions from their homes, we have seen Hurricane Katrina in the southern states of the United States, as well as heavy floods in Europe, extensive forest fires in Spain and Portugal, and mega-earthquakes in Indonesia and Pakistan.
The human dimensions of these tragedies cannot be underplayed and the economic costs are still being calculated. But is there anything we could have done to soften these blows?
At first sight it would seem nothing, that the destructive power of nature can be so overwhelming it renders us helpless. However, investigations following the tsunami disaster showed that, for those places away from the epicenter, an intact, stable and resilient environment provided a vital cushion to mitigate the impact of the waves. In fact, forceful impact and flooding was prevented by intact mangroves in Thailand, vegetated sand dunes in Sri Lanka, and fringing reefs around many of the Indian Ocean’s low-lying islands. On the other hand, places where coastal defences had been degraded by human activities, such as shrimp farming or coral mining, damage and loss of life and property were much greater.
Such findings drive home to us the importance of maintaining, and more important now, restoring the integrity of the planet for our survival.
Climate change is perhaps one of the greatest threats to our survival. In 2005, we finally saw the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, the first real international instrument to tackle climate change through the collective reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Many governments, unfortunately, are reluctant to come to grips with the global climatic changes we are facing. Too often we hear from countries that we can't afford the costs incurred by potential threats. But, we should be turning the argument on its head and asking “can we not afford” to take such threats seriously?
The United Nations took the threat seriously enough to establish a high-level panel on challenges to global threats and security, concluding that environmental degradation has enhanced the destructive potential of natural disasters and in some cases hastened their occurrence, and that biological security must be at the forefront of protection. But, the panel’s report ducked real recommendations about what to do.
The UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment - compiled by more than 1,300 of the best scientists and analysts from 95 countries - also concluded that human activity is putting such strain on the earth’s natural functions that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted. But this assessment barely raised eyebrows in the international community. More disconcerting, the UN-hosted World Summit this past September barely touched on environmental security with the agenda only giving climate change a passing mention over the more central themes of poverty and security.
Yet the traditional models to deal with poverty and security - mainly unbridled economic growth for one and strengthened military power for the other, are the approaches which have failed us for decades, and can never succeed unless based upon a safe and secure environment.
Where was security when the floodwaters wrecked New Orleans? We thought we had the engineering prowess to build a city on a silt-based river delta, interrupting the natural deposition cycle and lulling hundreds of thousands of people into the false sense of security that it was OK to live next to and below sea-level. Couple that with extracting oil and gas from below the delta and add to it years of draining the natural wetlands and coastal marshes, it was a recipe for disaster.
Ironically, we knew all that, but a 1998 program to restore Louisiana’s coastal marsh system was never adopted. Why? The US$14 billion price tag put people off. However that cost now seems like a good deal compared to the US$125 billion of damages resulting from Katrina, the US$50 billion to repair New Orleans, and the 1,000-plus lives lost in which no price tag can be attached.
But Katrina was a hurricane, one of many in a season where we ran out of names for them. Scientists are reluctant to come out and state definitively that the extreme 2005 hurricane season is a result of global warming. This is a pity because we know that climate change is giving us more extreme weather events. By the time enough scientific data has accumulated for scientists to state with confidence that climate change is to blame, we may have experienced many more Katrinas.
To best mitigate future extreme events, we as an international community will have to start making more strategic and cautious decisions, and stop taking foolish risks with the life support system that we all depend upon. A stable, sound environment will not guarantee safety in the wake of colossal natural disasters - like the Asian tsunami or American hurricane - but the evidence is there before us that it reduces the risks. The evidence is also there that our aspirations for the future cannot be met unless we start to tread more gently upon the thin crust of the sphere upon which our lives depend, and take better care of the atmosphere that sustains us.