When do "natural" disasters become "unnatural" ones? Without question, the line between these two phenomena is getting blurred and increasingly unhelpful. Human activities precipitate or acerbate natural weather patterns and events—and vice versa.
Famines, droughts, and flooding often have social and political aspects, even causes, with linkages to everything from poor farming practices to consequences of prolonged civil war. The exploitation of natural resources make regions more vulnerable to weather hazards. In the developed world, the collateral damage of hurricanes, and its more deadly companion flooding, has increased because individuals and property developers are making stupid choices like building near coastlines and other places prone to the cycles of nature. In the poor world, more people are being killed not because of peoples' choices (they have fewer options) but because of the poor choices of governments, international donors, not to mention the fact that disaster protection is just not a priority when millions are hungry. For instance, poor housing standards in earthquake zones are the cause of many needless deaths; and over-forestation and poor city planning trigger massive flooding and landslides. (Yup, turns out those trees have many purposes, including the stabilization of soil.)
The reverse is also true, if least frequent: large scale natural disasters, the kind that have nothing to do with human agency, such as the impact of asteroids and the enormous volcanic eruptions of Krakatoa in Java, Indonesia, have been identified as initial triggers to a cascade of significant social, economic and political changes. Nature, in the end, has the final trump card. Two fascinating histories come to mind, both recent: Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World by David Keys, 2000 (he also had a BBC TV series); and Krakatoa, The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 by Simon Winchester, 2003.)
Thomas Homer-Dixon, the author of The Ingenuity Gap, was one of the first researchers to highlight these linkages between the natural and unnatural, arguing that we need to look at these things systemically and framed in the terms of "environmental security." This was, and still is, a counter-intuitive idea for most policy-makers, but this concept is likely to ascend as we start seeing just how important our ecological context is to a smoothly running, prosperous society. Incidentally, Homer-Dixon's work was in turn taken up by Robert Kaplan in his famous "The Coming of Anarchy" article in The Atlantic Monthly, which cased a huge stir in the mid 1990s.
The good news is that earth systems scientists, a new breed of researchers armed with the very best of computing technology, will make important and timely contributions (we hope) to understand these relationships. Meanwhile, we still have a formidable educational and awareness problem. Human perception is notoriously bad at intuitively understanding "lag times" and exponential change—two classic traits of complex adaptive systems whether it be an ocean or the economy. For instance, it took twenty years for scientists to understand the cause-and-effect of our depleting ozone layer, long after it started becoming a problem. Public perception also has built-in lag times; it often takes years before an important issue builds a head of steam and crosses the threshold of mainstream interest in an enduring way. I don't have polling data on this, but it might be safe to say that public perception about the "weirding of the weather" is now tipping—regardless of whether this is "real" or not from a scientific perspective—as exemplified by Hollywood's sensational interpretation of the "rapid climate change" scenario in The Day After Tomorrow (the trailers look ridiculous) and this recent article, Unnatural Weather, Natural Disasters: A New U.N. Focus" by Elizabeth Olson, The New York Times. Also see The Change in the Weather: People, Weather, and the Science of Climate by William K. Stevens.
As Olson reports: "The cost of natural disasters and their negative effects on development have attracted the attention of the World Bank, which no longer thinks of disasters as a purely humanitarian issue. Natural disasters can decimate a country's economy. Venezuela's 1999 mudslides cost the country $3.2 billion. Honduras lost 41 percent of its annual gross domestic product when Hurricane Mitch barreled through in October 1998, according to the World Bank."
But why do more "unnatural" things happen in the developing world? We take for granted in the developed world the many subsidies, institutions and tools we have at our disposal which protect us from bad weather. These subsidies include investments in R&D focused on weather forecasting to good transportation networks to government disaster assistance. Access to things like insurance also cushion many people from the worst effects of weather gone wrong. The developing world doesn't have these.
Fortunately there have been "sweeping improvements in forecasting" which has "made it possible to notify people of impending disasters in time to evacuate them or shore up their defenses."
"'Five-day forecasts today are as good as two-day forecasts were about 20 years ago'... And they can be broadcast almost instantaneously, almost anywhere in the world. 'This is not just a natural phenomenon and there's nothing to do about it,' said Margaret Arnold, a hazard management official at the bank. 'There is a lot you can do."
Unfortunately, many of our institutions and systems are still not up to the task to doing something about this, but the causes are quite complex and not just about bringing better technology.
"[As} Dr. McPherson noted that developing countries often lacked preparedness plans. 'Part of it is lack of money and lack of experience,' he said, 'and it's lack of political will.' Many politicians do not understand what modern forecasting can do, he said, and some cultures are fatalistic about such catastrophes...
In research, he said, every nation would benefit from more systematic studies and observations of weather phenomena. The world needs to know more about 'how and why natural hazards happen, and how they can escalate into disasters,' he said."
There are also a host of bureaucratic and organizational problems in how the international system responds to disasters. For instance, going back to our blurred categories, the distinction between "natural" and "man-made" cleaves disaster relief systems in unhelpful, if not counter-productive and damaging ways.
A project I'm helping to launch called "Humanitarian Futures" has the aim of improving these organizations' capacity to adapt to this shifting context. Dr. Randolph Kent, an experienced humanitarian hand and now a senior researcher at Kings College London, is leading this project. A brief summary of the project can be found here. Kent has written some excellent articles on this topic; I recommend this article "Humanitarian Failures, Adaptive Failures."
One of the hypotheses of the project is that in the future we will have more "unnatural" disasters, and these will occur not just in the developing world but also in the rich countries as well. Witness the recent extreme temperatures in Europe last summer, particularly France. Witness the wild flooding of Prague. Witness the rapid depletion of water tables in California, huge forest fires, and concerns about the West Nile Virus. Another hypothesis is that, like in the distant past, we may be confronted with some truly global disasters that have global impacts, At present, there is a serious "ingenuity gap", especially of the institutional kind. Our systems, tools, and thinking are not prepared for this kind of disaster of large-scale, unconventional disaster. (The OECD recently did a study of this.) Wish us luck.
"Fire in a Ponderosa Pine Forest"
Forest fire burning out of control in a pine forest on the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation in New Mexico.
© Raymond Gehman/CORBIS
Posted by nicole at May 23, 2004 12:11 PM