The recent onslaught of flooding created by a succession of devastating hurricanes in the Caribbean and the U.S. southeast has ever-so-slightly heightened the media and political conversation about the effects of global climate change. While this dialogue is obviously beneficial in waking a skeptical public and political system to the rapid development of climate change impacts, it is not a sufficiently deep analysis of the notion of disaster.
Climate change is the most significant consequence of a global economic system that has developed over the past several hundred years, depending as it does on constant expansion of production and consumption with little concern for the planetary system that sustains us. However, climate change isn’t the only human-induced factor that transforms natural events like hurricanes or earthquakes into disasters.
The present structure of the global system is governed by an empire of global capital based on geopolitical inequities and power imbalances that produce varying levels of vulnerability, including those relevant to framing natural events as disasters.
Unless we make a concerted effort to understand the complicated role that the current global system plays in transforming natural events into disasters, we will be unable to equitably manage the catastrophes that climate change is certain to produce. The realization that disasters are the result of natural events exacerbated by climate change is critical, but it also conceals the geopolitical structures that are a significant part of such tragedies. In a sense, these hidden, yet, critical causes are mystified by the concepts of natural disaster and climate change. Even if climate change somehow could be magically reversed, the geopolitical structures that produce different levels of vulnerability would remain.
The Recent Message of Climate Change
In the month between August 20 and September 20 four major hurricanes developed in the warming waters of the Atlantic Ocean, threatening and eventually devastating islands in the Caribbean and states in the southeastern U.S. Destruction was most severe in several of the Leeward Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. states of Texas and Florida.
In addition to category 4 and 5 hurricane wind damage, the storms pummeled the region with unheard of volumes of rain. On August 26, much of the fourth largest city in the U.S. – Houston, Texas - was transformed into a massive lake, inundated by as much as 50 inches of rain from Hurricane Harvey. Harvey released an estimated 33 trillion gallons of rain, enough water to fill a cubed tank with dimensions of 3.1 miles on each side.
Just days later, Hurricane Irma almost brought the same fate to Miami, Florida, veering westward at the last minute, making a devastating journey up the entire western coast of Florida. Irma created record flooding in Jacksonville, Florida and even further north in Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia.
While most of the media described these events as natural disasters, a number of sources pointed to human-induced climate change as a major factor in producing the size and ferocity of these storms. In the case of Houston, some sources even partially blamed the uncontrolled development policy of that metropolitan area for the extent of the flooding.
These observations about the role that climate change and urban development play in exacerbating the tragedies of natural events are, of course, headed in the right direction in unraveling the complex ways that natural systems interact with human political and economic systems. But for a more complete picture of this complexity, a different flooding tragedy illustrates this interaction more explicitly.
The South Asian Flood in Nepal
A few weeks before Hurricane Harvey, catastrophic floods that affected around 40 million humans occurred on the other side of the globe. One of the most fragile countries in the world – Nepal – was one of the countries most affected. Western media attention to these floods was brief and shallow. A full analysis of what created the Nepali disaster connects the dots between the geopolitical factors that produce such tragedies.
The mainstream Western news industry systematically described the devastating floods and landslides in Nepal as just another “natural disaster.” From television to print news, the tragedy was portrayed as a result of slightly abnormal seasonal monsoon rains which, nevertheless, were part of a natural order. A New York Times article on August 13 concluded that “monsoon rains…create havoc each year.” In other words, the floods and accompanying landslides in Nepal that killed more than 150 people, displaced more than 20,000 families, effected 75,000 more families and destroyed tens of thousands of acres of cropland were caused by nothing more than a predictable, perhaps slightly more vengeful, Mother Nature.
While the immediate damage was catastrophic, the long-term effects for a nation already classified by the United Nations as “food insecure” are frightening. Moreover, Nepal is still healing from the devastating earthquakes that shattered the hilly regions of the country in 2015.
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However, equally frightening is what these news reports do to conceal and mystify the true causes of this disaster. Monsoon rains are, indeed, natural and relatively predictable events, but they are transformed into disasters by the structures and processes of inequality within and between nations. Thus, disasters are produced by geopolitical structures rather than nature.
As Greg Bankoff and Dorothia Hilhorst document in their 2004 book entitled “Mapping Vulnerability: Disasters, Development and People,” there really are no purely “natural disasters.” Of course, there are natural events and hazards, but what makes them disasters is their impact on human populations. Moreover, those impacts are mediated by social and economic inequities. The world’s most vulnerable populations bear the brunt of such tragedies.
According to a report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, between 1999 and 2008 “medium and low development countries” experienced 64% of all disasters globally, but 92% of the deaths and 97% of the populations severely affected by them. This disproportionate impact of so-called natural disasters can only be explained by factors other than nature.
The casual use of the term “natural disaster” conveniently masks the social and economic factors that turn natural events into disasters. In a sense, the phrase is a more contemporary, secular way of simplifying and mystifying causation, supplanting the more traditional and religious “will-of-God” explanation.
In the case of the recent flooding and landslides in Nepal there are three interlocking factors that have transformed the relatively natural event of the monsoon season into the disaster that has had tragic immediate impact and long-term. These are (1) the instability produced by insufficiently financed, designed and constructed infrastructure projects, such as roads, drainage systems and bridges; (2) dams and embankments constructed by the government of India along its 1750 km border with Nepal; and (3) the erratic seasonal changes affected by global climate change.
The negative impacts of road construction and other large-scale “development” projects in steep, mountainous regions of lesser developed nations are well-documented. There are two general reasons for these negative impacts. First, road construction, mining or timbering can destabilize sloped terrain, especially if they are poorly designed or inadequately funded. Slopes are undercut, inadequate disposal of removed rock and dirt creates hazards, and natural drainage systems are dangerously altered.
Yet, in a report published in 2013, the World Bank, a major funding source for development projects around the world, argues that transportation is “…a crucial driver of development, bringing socioeconomic opportunities within the reach of the poor and enabling economies to be competitive and thrive in a globalized world. While there is some truth in this position, there has been inadequate attention to the negative impacts, especially in countries like Nepal where steep and dramatic increases in elevation within relatively short distances increases vulnerability to development projects that significantly transform the natural landscape.
Secondly, construction projects like roads change the settlement patterns of human populations. People and businesses tend to congregate along newly constructed roads that are most often subject to the stability problems mentioned above. This puts larger numbers of people at risk. Roads are often constructed in valleys along major rivers and human settlements expand, creating greater vulnerability to floods.
In addition, over the past decades India has constructed at least 18 dams and embankments along its border with Nepal. These dams are designed by India to control the flow of major rivers and watercourses from Nepal into India. While this may be good for India, it is disastrous for Nepal.
Major rivers in Nepal originate in the high Himalayas, fed by heavy snowfall and glaciers. Monsoon rains obviously add volumes of water during the months of June to September. The dams and embankments in India prevent these major rivers from engaging in their natural flows, instead backing that flow into the lowlands of Nepal.
In a well-known incident in 2008, India closed all 32 gates on the Sharada dam during the monsoon season, causing extensive flooding in the Nepali region behind the dam. Tens of thousands of Nepali people were effected and crop production declined dramatically.
Finally, there is the factor of climate change. Nepal contributes almost nothing to the factors producing global climate change. Yet, Nepal is currently the recipient of the consequences of climate change produced primarily by the industrial north. Weather patterns are increasing erratic. The predictability of the seasonal movement from pre-monsoon to monsoon to post-monsoon and winter months with predictable temperature and rain levels is rapidly giving way to erratic patterns. The effects of climate change in Nepal are variable, but trends toward warmer temperatures producing more violent rain storms are obvious.
When the current tragedies in Nepal are attributed to natural events alone, the underlying geopolitical causes of disasters mentioned above are hidden. If the full causes of disasters are concealed, then solutions will never be found. This is as true for the devastation in Texas as it is for the devastation in Nepal. As climate change accelerates the incidence of disasters in the world, we all need to do a better job of understanding their complex underlying economic and political causes that produce varying levels of vulnerability.