The Future of Humanity’s Oasis

Earth Day, celebrated on April 22 each year, is a day of immense importance. The importance far outweighs the attention we pay to it. Some environmentalists argue that we put aside only one day for celebrating the one planet that we all live on and that every day should be Earth Day. Indeed our showing of concern for the Earth should not end when 22 April ends. So let us continue our discussion of the subject. For Earth Day, PPDLM posted a lengthy article on the significance of this year’s World Water Day for Pakistan, as water is Pakistan’s biggest environmental issue. We shall reflect on the points in there but first, let us pay attention to what Earth Day means to us.

PPLDM is dedicated to dealing with the hazards that exist in Pakistan. People suffer the risk of many kinds of disasters and live through some disaster nearly all the time. We in Pakistan need to deal with the risk as well as the actual presence of disaster. We also need to know where things will go from here. It is as important to focus on the future as on the present. It is quite evident that things will not continue to be the same as they are now for this is a rapidly changing world. That holds very much true for hazards. When we scrutinize the future, we find that Pakistan’s hazard situation is going to become worse and worse with, distressingly, no end in sight.

As Pakistan develops and the population grows, we will become more vulnerable to natural hazards. It is not just that higher population means more will be vulnerable to natural events. For example, more and more people are moving into cities. In 2007, for the first time in world history, more people in the world lived in cities than elsewhere, and the growth of urbanization is continuing. This means, for example, that earthquakes will become a greater danger. Seismologists now fear that an earthquake with a death toll of more than one million could become a possibility this century. Increasing development also means that people build infrastructure in formerly unoccupied areas where natural risks are high. An advancing world makes its human population more vulnerable to the natural threats that have always been there.

As technology advances and development expands, there are more things that can go wrong in terms of accidents what we would call artificial hazards. Everything that we build around us can harm us and the more we build, the more we are in danger. Now, in the modern era, many of us fear we live under apocalyptic threats. In the 1940s, for example, when the nuclear bomb was being developed, some scientists thought the detonation of such a device could set the entire atmosphere alight, as the extreme energy released could start a chain reaction igniting nitrogen and oxygen everywhere. That turned out to be ridiculous, but technology is just continuing to advance at an accelerated rate, making it more and more likely that something bad could happen. We live at risk of accidents, especially when development is done in a shoddy manner. For example, slums and shantytowns, which form when urbanization proceeds faster than we can handle, are places of great risk.

None of this, strictly speaking, however, concerns Earth Day. Earth Day is about the effects that human beings are having on the planet, on the changes we are making to the natural environment. Some of these changes can be detrimental to our well-being and all too often, they bite back in the form of disasters.

When we alter natural processes, we increase the risk of natural hazards. When disruption to the way nature behaves occurs, it is more often than not dangerous for us because nature’s balance can be temporarily thrown out of whack. The one biggest way this is happening is climate change, the warming up of the global climate due to the energy usages that power civilization. There are already signs that climate change is happening and among them is the fact that weather (tropical cyclones, flooding, drought, etc.) and weather-related disasters (wildfires, landslides, epidemics, etc.) are getting worse everywhere. Another big way is the destruction of natural environments through the expansion of agriculture or industry. Removal of vegetation makes hazards such as landslides and flooding more likely and makes us less protected from hazards such as storm surges and tsunamis.

Artificial accidents can have effects on the natural environment which are hazardous for us. The biggest such hazard is a nuclear power plant meltdown. Such an event releases radiation that can get into the air, the water, the soil, and living things. People are then vulnerable to taking in this harmful radiation through breathing, drinking, and eating. Where people are at risk from this depends on the natural conditions surrounding the power plant. Wind blowing in one direction can take the radiation far and a meltdown occurring next to the ocean can result in marine ecosystems over a wide area being contaminated.

Natural events can at times take what we put into the environment and use it to harm us. For example, in London, the air used to be thick with sulfur dioxide from coal burning. Then, in 1952, a great big fog blanketed the city, with the water droplets absorbing the sulfur dioxide and turning into sulfuric acid which was inhaled by people. 12,000 people were to die prematurely from one of the world’s less noticeable disasters. However, the risk from artificial hazards is much lower than the risk from natural hazards.

All in all, human impacts on the environment are a huge factor behind the disaster risk we live under.

We can work to manage the hazards we face on a short-term basis, but PPLDM recognizes the long-term situation that we face and it is one of its top priorities to ready ourselves for that future in advance and find out how to mitigate it. It recognizes the need for timely action. One of our big obstacles is absence of knowledge – we do not really know what is coming and what we can do about it. The first thing we need to save our planet is science.

Earth Day was founded in 1970 by US senator Gaylord Nelson. It came as the result of growing consciousness over environmental degradation as a result of events such as the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill and the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. One of the most important factors behind the fostering of this consciousness came from when we went beyond the world.

Near the end of 1968, the Apollo 8 mission was launched to put the first men in orbit around the Moon. On 24 December, while in orbit, the astronauts spotted their home planet, half-illuminated, rising from the side of the Moon and took a color photograph of it now known as Earthrise. Humanity, however, did not get a clear picture of the entire Earth until December 7, 1972, when astronauts on the Apollo 17 mission were 18,000 miles away from home while going to the Moon, they took a picture of the Earth that came to be known as the Blue Marble. As an epilogue, on Valentine’s Day, 1990, Voyager 1, while heading towards the outer reaches of the Solar System, was turned back towards Earth one last time and took a picture while 4 billion miles away that was digitally transmitted back to us. In that picture, crossed by rays of light due to the effects of the Sun on the camera, our planet, the planet we live on, Earth, appears as a very tiny, barely-noticeable dot of light.

These pictures had a profound impact on how humanity looked at Planet Earth. Before we took the earth for granted as the vast expanse we could live in. But from an extraterrestrial perspective, we could see clearly that all of humanity and all of life has only one home, one sphere floating through an endless expanse of emptiness, an oasis in the desert of space. We realized how limited the entire world was and therefore how fragile it was, how limited everything on it was. Earthrise started this feeling and Blue Marble put everything into full view as we got to see the full magnificence of our planet, showing how much it has and yet how that is all we have. Earth was now plainly a single place of its own, lonely and singular in the totality of the universe.

It got us thinking about wars and human conflicts, both how ridiculous they were and how bad they were. At that time, they were a huge concern. 54 years before Earthrise, World War 1 broke out and made the world feel the horrific impact of war for the first time. Despite that, it led subsequently to several decades of conflict and the threat of conflict across the globe, one of which, the Vietnam War, was occurring during the space flights. The Vietnam War fermented a wave of anti-war sentiment that gripped the Western World, to which the photos contributed. In addition, in those days, there was the constant threat of nuclear war between powerful countries, which could be a massive disaster for the world. Now, people could have a full view of what it was that could be wrecked by nuclear war, in fact, even be lost.

At the same time, in addition to what human beings were doing to each other, people were becoming more mindful of what human beings were doing to the environment they were living in, the very planet itself. When the pictures of that planet were released, concern for the state of the Earth was thrust forward in the minds of people. Earthrise kick-started the environmental movement, leading to the first Earth Day less than two years later, and two years later, the release of Blue Marble firmly cemented environmentalism. It has been that way ever since. The Space Race gave everybody the ability to look at their whole planet from afar. It opened up a world of inspiration.

That inspiration, ironically, was only made possible by the very processes enabling the degradation of the planet. Space exploration is the very height of what human beings can do thanks to their technological advancement which the Earth cannot handle. Indeed, the whole point was brought home through the Earth photographs. In the past, the world really was immense and humans were just a tiny part of it. But when we have reached the point in which we can leave the world and look at it from afar, we have clearly shrunk the world considerably and made it more vulnerable to our presence.

At the same time that we are ruining the world more and more, we are becoming more and more able to experience the world in all its majesty and beauty. It is from up close as well as from afar. Thus, many of us have easy access to an endless supply of photos and videos of the natural environment everywhere. Some of us also can easily and quickly visit natural environments across the world. By hopping onto airplanes, we can go hiking through a mountainous landscape one month, and trek through a tropical rainforest the next month. That makes globe-trotters and tourists potential forces for environmental awareness.

In addition to this, Mankind’s scientific knowledge is accumulating at a tremendous pace. While subduing and altering the earth, we can meticulously study it. We are learning about our natural environment at roughly the same pace we are losing it and this holds the key to what hope there is for the planet’s future. Our learning tells us how detrimental our actions are in so many ways.

Earth simply is not designed to accommodate the modern civilization and our burgeoning population. It is limited in its capacity to support us and its ability to sustain us is ephemeral in many ways. We are also changing it to a great extent and harming it severely. The entire planet is enormous and humans are insignificant compared to it. But that only means that we cannot affect the bulk of the planet, the huge quantities of metal and rock making up its insides. What is in severe trouble is the natural environment that makes up the surface of the Earth, the air, water, and sediment covering the planet in thin layers. This global environment is home to the biosphere, the living things which inhabit it thickly and which have also shaped it and influence it heavily. Human beings have made themselves the dominant life form on Earth and their dominance is spreading endlessly. They now pretty much rule over the biosphere and have taken on the role of shaping air, water, and earth. The environment, however, is very fragile and all the rapid change we are creating haphazardly is not going well.

The natural environment is all that there is to provide for us. Yet, it is limited in how much it can provide while humanity is not being limited at all in what it is taking and what it is doing. That has long been evident. For example, at the time of the Roman Empire, there existed an advanced civilization once developed in the depth of the Saharan Desert known as the Garamantes. They existed because underneath the sands of Libya lay a vast bed of water which accumulated over millennia from what little rain fell in the region. In just a few hundred years, the Berber tribe dug wells and built an underground irrigation system to extract this water, becoming wealthy and powerful. Inevitably, the water ran out and the Garamantes collapsed about 1,500 years ago and gave way to barren sand dunes once again.

Today, the middle third of the United States of America is mostly arid but underneath there lies the biggest underground reservoir of freshwater in the world, the Ogallala Aquifer. For over a century now, farmers in the Midwest have been pumping up this water on a massive scale to foster a major part of America’s agricultural prosperity. The only problem is, the aquifer comes from the end of the last Ice Age. More than 12,000 years ago, vast sheets of glacial ice, miles thick, covered much of North America. When the world warmed up afterwards, the entire ice sheet melted and much of the vast amounts of water that melted seeped underground to create the aquifer and have rested there ever since. Little water has been moving into the aquifer from other sources all this time. Being a nation with such a huge demand for resources, America is now basically draining the aquifer, and draining it fast. It is going to run out.

One might say that the Garamantes were only an Iron Age tribe of people living in the desert and so were vulnerable, but this is the United States of America. It is vast, it is powerful, and its prosperity is immense. The fact is, both societies, and all societies, operate within the limitations of the earth. The rules apply to them equally.

Besides these ancient reserves of water deep below the ground, known as fossil water, which are just a part of humanity’s freshwater resources, which, by the way, are limited all around, fossil fuels provide almost all of the energy for the machinery that powers modern civilization. But coal, petroleum, and natural gas formed over millions of years from organic matter that fossilized without decaying and are basically resting in the bowels of the Earth completely still. They also will run out inevitably and who knows how we will cope?

The photographs of Earth taken from spacecraft provide us with the “big picture” in terms of space. But in order to grasp the reality of the problem between humanity and the planet, we also need to look at the big picture in terms of time. The best way we have so far of doing this is looking at a graph made of the geologic time scale. Planet Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago. Life first appeared 3.5 billion years ago. Our modern ecosystems of plants and animals started spreading all over the world about 500 million years ago. The modern human race appeared 500,000 years ago. The roots of civilization began 10,000 years ago. The Industrial Revolution started in earnest two hundred years ago. “Our world” has been in existence for just a minute fraction of the time the Earth has been around. The natural forces that have shaped the planet the most operate over immense periods of time and the human forces now altering the world, overwhelming the faster and smaller-scale processes of nature, have been around since yesterday compared to the former.

Mark Twain once said, “If the Eiffel Tower was now representing the world’s age, the film of paint on the pinnacle knob would represent man’s share of that age and everybody would perceive that the paint was what the tower was built for.” Indeed, the entire world is acting as if Earth’s entire history was for the benefit of our modern human civilization. But that is not really the case. Furthermore, just as the paint on the Eiffel tower can be easily flaked off, so modern civilization and the minute period of time it occupies can easily come to an end. The world therefore has a distressing and dangerous future, but to gain the crucial understanding of what may really happen, we need to look at what has been sustaining Earth’s natural environment all along and how we are now exploiting it.

In the natural world, what is taken is given back and that is what sustains all life. For example, animals breathe oxygen and eat plants to produce carbon dioxide which is exhaled into the air and that carbon dioxide is taken in by plants to produce oxygen which is consumed by the animals along with the plants. Not only are we people now taking too much from the Earth, what we are giving it back in return is mostly unusable and poisonous. As we burn the fossil fuels that has been building up in the Earth’s crust over millions of years, we are ultimately going to remove it all, but in the meantime, we are turning it into other things, much of which is carbon dioxide. All this carbon dioxide emitted by our energy usage cannot be used, destroyed, or contained and just goes into the atmosphere, changing its composition.

Carbon dioxide absorbs heat rays emitted when sunlight is absorbed by the Earth’s surface. As such, the Earth’s entire climate is warming up. Estimates are that nearly a trillion and a half tons of carbon dioxide were produced by human activity since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and that, now, nearly forty billion tons of carbon dioxide are released per year! And, the trend is rising. This undoubtedly will cause global warming. It is already quite evident, as most of the hottest years ever recorded have just happened. In the years and decades ahead, it is not clear what exactly will be the effects of climate change, but it is quite obvious that we will be, and are already, experiencing severe disruptions to the workings of the Earth’s climate that will by and large affect humanity negatively. Among the biggest impacts will be redistribution of Earth’s freshwater, which will put agriculture at risk.

Besides carbon dioxide, more immediate severe harm to the environment is happening due to pollution from the great variety of other waste that we produce in huge quantities. Burning of fossil fuels also is producing air pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and soot. Rain can wash them out of the air but this rain, which is acidic, causes even more harm. Water supplies are polluted by a variety of harmful chemicals which can make them unhealthy to drink or unsuitable for living things to live in. Most of the enormous amounts of plastic that we trash travels far and wide into natural environments and harms animals in many ways. Certain gases that we have been emitting into the air in small amounts release chlorine atoms that are destroying the Earth’s ozone layer in the upper atmosphere that shield us from the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays, making us more vulnerable to solar radiation.

Carbon dioxide, at least, can be absorbed by nature. All photosynthetic organisms, such as phytoplankton in the oceans and vegetation on land, need to consume carbon dioxide and the carbon dioxide we are pumping into the atmosphere can be turned into biomass. However, this is not happening because we are wantonly clearing the Earth of vegetation, especially trees, to make way for our agriculture, industries, and human habitation.

This is one of our big impacts on the Earth, destroying its living ecosystems by pushing it aside or overexploiting it. As human civilization, which is based upon the cultivation of only a few kinds of plants and animals, expands rapidly across the planet, wild habitats and wildlife populations are being wiped out on a grand scale. That we are killing off the other life-forms inhabiting this planet is the crux of our impact on the environment. In addition to that, of course, is that we are also killing ourselves, more slowly, at the same time. The subject of Earth Day basically boils down to the fact that other living things are being killed and humanity is being sickened.

So the important question is what can be done about it? We are barely able to even answer that question yet. Perhaps the very capabilities we have gained from the modern growth of civilization can be put to use in solving the problems we are causing. After all, it is through modern technology and development that we are finding out what is happening to the natural world, and acquiring the knowledge to do something about it. But we should not count on it too much as a source of actually helping the Earth and restoring its natural, healthy state. Our influence on Earth so far is doing almost nothing but hurting it and so how can it start healing it? This is all because what we are capable of doing gets more and more out of our control.

We must be mindful of it. Hubris, not just ignorance, may blind us to this reality. Consider the North Korean regime and its nuclear program. The North Korean government has described the atomic bombs it has built as a “sword” with which it can defend its people. But is a nuke really like an actual sword, the top personnel weapon of more primitive times? With a sword, a person carrying it can pierce and cut through other things in any way he wants and is quite safe from it at the same time. A gun in hand is much more powerful, but it can only penetrate in one direction and the bullet can ricochet and hit anywhere else. A bomb can be vastly more powerful. A person with a grenade can use it to annihilate his enemies instantly. But he has to throw it from afar, because when the grenade is used, it creates an explosion which exerts itself equally in all directions. Shrapnel from the blast could even go far and wide.

And what about a nuclear bomb, a more modern invention and the ultimate in our ability to attack, able to wipe out an entire city? A nuclear blast produces great amounts of harmful radiation which spreads through the environment. When a city is vaporized by a nuke, the dust created from it can pick up the radiation and be dispersed far and wide by wind, afflicting people in other parts of the world with horrific sickness and death.

The North Korean regime must really think of itself as being big and powerful thanks to its nuclear arsenal. But it is only the arsenal which is powerful. The North Koreans and all other human beings are humble and vulnerable in its face. You cannot make sure that nuclear weapons will only do what you want them to do. Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba once learned that. At one point during the Cold War, he advocated that the Soviet Union toughen up to America and even suggested a nuclear strike. The USSR sent its scientists over to Cuba to explain to him how much radiation will be produced by a strike on American cities, that it will be carried by wind towards the Caribbean, and what effect it will have on Cuba. Fidel must have thought that because nukes were something created by people, it is entirely in people’s control. But that is not true.

Nuclear energy is a natural force. Hydrogen fusion occurs on a grand scale in the Sun, producing the sunlight that powers nearly everything that happens on Earth, and uranium fission happens in great amounts in the bowels of the Earth, producing heat that shapes the planet over time. Now humans can take hydrogen and uranium and fuse and fissure it to create explosions that they desire, but they are playing around with something very big here, too big for what humanity is meant to handle, for what the Earth, in the balanced state it is supposed to maintain, can handle.

Speaking of which, environmental destruction basically happens because the environment is very fragile and we are playing around with it too much. But we must remember that only the way the natural environment is supposed to be is fragile. Nature itself, however, still has all the power. Humanity does not have control over it, which is why we are suffering from what we are doing to nature. If those American cities were nuked, the radiation emitted would not harm nature. Rather, nature would step in and take control as air currents in the atmosphere would pick up the radiation and transport it anywhere regardless of where people want it to go. That is how we must view the environmental situation.

Our true hope for the future, the future of the planet, the future of humanity, may thus lie in working with nature. That was the idea espoused by the UN on World Water Day a month ago and we absolutely must not limit our consideration of this idea to just certain days like that. We must make use of the processes of nature in a way that does not tamper with the same in order to continue inhabiting the planet in a healthy and sustainable manner. How we can do so, of course, is something we are just beginning to understand. We must now embark on that journey of understanding and we must put our scientific prowess to use doing so. We already are learning a great deal about nature and so the stage is set for us to learn how we can collaborate with the natural environments of Earth. There is so much we can gain from that as the forces of nature are so powerful and productive.

To give just one example of what can be done, many of our towers are built by concrete and steel, the production of which is environmentally damaging. But there is an innovative new idea to create buildings out of wood. That is an old idea used for making small buildings, but for the huge buildings of modern times, simply wooden planks will not do. Instead, a way has been invented of cutting wood into thin sheets and fusing them together to create structures of any size. Wood is very useful for construction because it is a biological building material, designed to perfection by nature. Made of a mass of lignin interspersed with cellulose fibers, it is very strong and lightweight. Of course, when we return to using wood as a common building material, we will have to cut down more trees and only worsen habitat degradation. But if we find a way to harvest timber and let more trees grow and harvest them again, we could find the solution to global warming. Trees store much of the world’s carbon in their woods and a tree left out in nature usually will eventually rot and release the carbon. But if the world makes its structures out of wood, we can suck out all the carbon dioxide we are releasing into the atmosphere and store it in our buildings. Wooden skyscrapers can be the carbon sink we are looking for.

It is time to put our minds to completely changing our relationship to nature and the way we treat it and use it. We advocate that Pakistan puts all its effort into doing this. This is very useful in disaster management. The country is very vulnerable to natural disasters but nature is not our enemy. Working with nature is the key to making it safe. It will also ensure our prosperity. The people of Pakistan are already putting much admirable effort into this. The government of KPK, for example, has led the Billion Tree Tsunami which has succeeded in its goal to improve forest cover in the northwest. This not only plays a small part in mitigating carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, but also keeps soil erosion from the mountains in check, and benefits all of Pakistan.

But there is so much more that needs to be done. The struggle is only just beginning and we will all have to play our part in it. Environmental problems range from local to global, from one village suffering from the cutting of trees around it to the warming up of the entire planet by industrial activities as a whole. Pakistan suffers from environmental problems caused by activities both within the country and outside. Therefore, to solve these problems, we need to not only change what is going on in Pakistan, we also need to work with other countries.

Environmental issues are not just for governments, policy makers, and organizations. Decisions made by people in authority will not be enough to protect the environment. That is because the human impact on the Earth is made by all of us, every single person. The lifestyles and choices of each person in the world are responsible for the changes being made to the natural environment. Therefore, protecting the environment depends on everybody. All of us need to get involved in protecting nature by both changing our ways and looking for solutions.

PPLDM, of course, is all about mobilizing the people and bringing change through the grassroots level in order to make Pakistan safe from disasters. It is entirely possible to make the masses of Pakistan become involved in making themselves safe from disasters, to work for disaster risk reduction. They can also get involved in tackling the long-term, root cause behind much of the disaster risk they face, the degradation of the environment. It is up to the people of Pakistan to solve the nation’s internal environmental issues, right up to the most remote villagers, and what they need now is guidance.

Ultimate guidance, of course, will come from our scientific endeavor. In addition, guidance can also come from history. There is much we can learn from what has already been done. Right now, let us focus on a lesson already dealt with in the last article. Before 1914, there was more than a century in which the pace of civilization picked up rapidly and produced our modern world. It was a time when people’s foremost concern was what they were capable of and they did all they could to subdue the Earth. Conflict and tension was one result of this march of civilization. As a result, the years from 1914 onwards were of constant strife and struggle between the people of the world, spilling over at times into conflicts of epic proportions. This dark and dangerous age peacefully subsided by 1991 and now, relatively speaking, there is systemic peace. But we are now also in the era when another effect of the march of civilization is making itself evident, the buckling of the Earth’s environment under our weight. As such, another dark age is on the horizon and we have absolutely no idea where it will be leading us. We have no idea how we will cope.

Consider, for example, that in the nineteenth century, if a country suffered an oil shortage, it was likely because that country did not expand its oil industry enough. If a country suffered an oil shortage in the twentieth century, it was usually because there as a war going on or OPEC nations were angry at that country or some such situation. Now, in the twenty-first century, countries are likely to start facing the situation in which they will be short on oil more and more because the oil reserves in the Earth will begin to run out. If you are not producing enough oil yet, you can just dig more drilling wells. If you are faced with wars and embargoes, you can just make peace or restore good relations with your enemies (very easy to do but very hard to want to do, which is why wars are such a huge problem). But if all the oil in the world starts to run out, just what can you do?

That is the predicament we will face this century and beyond, not just for oil but for much else. While that future is hurtling our way, we are not even at the point where we are able to conceive of solutions.

Much of that could be due to the fact that such problems are largely new for humanity. The world has not had to face any similar situation before and this means that we are mostly bereft of turning to history for direct guidance on what to do. However, that is not entirely the case, because the circumstances that are now global have, through history, appeared in localized areas. Take oases in deserts, for example, like that of the Garamantes. Their story serves as a warning sign to us, though coming along with only a lesson of failure. Another example is that of remote islands.

Just as Earth is a largely closed habitat in the expanse of space, so islands are small, closed habitats for humans in the expanse of the ocean. Through the millenia, people inhabiting small islands have been kept isolated from the rest of the world, particularly the islands that dot the gigantic Pacific Ocean. The history of these islands offers a rich variety of stories of environments buckling under the weight of people. Some of these stories are of complete catastrophe, such as what happened on Easter Island, but many others are stories of success and sustainability. Pacific Islanders have a long heritage of managing to conserve and protect their natural resources and now that we are all in their shoes, their history is of great usefulness to us.

In addition, if you study the past carefully enough, you get an understanding of what is happening now even if it never happened before. Learning from history does not just involve looking at past situations and realizing it could happen again. It also involves really analyzing processes operating over time to understand where they could lead to next. For example, in 1938, they looked at Hitler’s aggressiveness and thought that World War 1 already happened and so if they go to war with Hitler, it would be like that war over again. They did not care to examine Germany’s post-war social conditions and the mindsets being fostered in the country in order to predict the kind of war that World War 2 was to become. If you know history, you can predict that something could occur because it already has, but if you understand history, you can predict that something could occur even if it has no precedent. It goes for natural history just as much for human history. Thus, as has been explained earlier, by studying the past processes of Earth and human societies inhabiting it, we can become more alert to where things are going in the future.

Let us also keep the pre-contact Pacific Islanders, and remote islanders everywhere, in mind always, for they are the precedent to what we are now doing to the entire world as we turn all of it into one single island for us.

It seems that in addition to not looking back at bygone eras, we are still in the mindset that people had in bygone eras, the aforementioned ages of expanding oil industries and oil embargoes, when all we could think about was our relations with other people and with what we create and what we do. We have yet to be concerned enough about the natural environment around us. On TV, all we hear most of the time is the state of the economy and international relations and (in Pakistan) Nawaz Sharif being kicked out by the Supreme Court. News about the state of the environment appears only as a sideshow. Yet what is going on with Nawaz Sharif is not important in the long-term.

Earth Day serves as a yearly reminder of that. But we need to be reminded every day. This piece of writing is meant to instill in the readers a concern for the Earth. It is a long road ahead for Pakistan and the world, for every single one of us. Humanity really is a capable force and so, in the end, we may really hold the key to making sure the planet we live in is healthy. In order for it to be that way, we must begin now and we must try everything we can to help the Earth. We are only living for now, which is wrong. We need to live in a way that allows humanity to have a future. If we must think in personal terms, lets say we must ensure a future for our children and grandchildren and their grandchildren, so on. If there is anything those photos taken aboard the spaceships have taught us, it is that we have only one planet to live on. There is nowhere else to go. It is our oasis in the universe and letting it go to ruin is absolutely not an option for us.

Author’s bio:

Shahzeb Khan is an environmental activist and journalist whose articles have been published in Daily Times, Express Tribune, and Eurasia Review. His work was commended by former US president Barack Obama for outstanding achievement in environmental stewardship.

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Pakistan’s Water Future

Water is the foundation of every nation in the world. Pakistan’s relationship with water, however, is rather unique. Indus River is the backbone around which the nation revolves and its surrounding area, the Indus Basin, is home to almost all of Pakistan’s population. The entire territory of Pakistan has a very arid climate, with only high-altitude areas being naturally well-irrigated. Most of Pakistan’s water, thus, comes from the rivers that flow down from these mountains, chiefly the Indus and its tributaries. These are oases of water moving through parched lands. In order for civilization to exist in Pakistan’s territories, people have had to spread those huge amounts of water out over a wider area. As a result, the world’s largest irrigation system exists in Pakistan’s Indus Basin.

Rainfall does occur in great amounts over the Indus Basin. However, most of it is for a short period in the summer monsoon season, from June to September. This is a time of the year when the air, which in the rest of the year produces an arid climate by flowing from Pakistan towards the ocean, reverses its course and cloud-bearing winds from the Indian Ocean blanket Pakistan. These clouds pour down an enormous amount of water over Pakistan, whether over the mountains of the northern areas and northwest, the Punjab Basin, or occasionally Sindh. Thus, Pakistan overflows with an abundance of water, often too much to use at once. This all quickly ends, however, and in the meantime, much of the rainwater flows into the Indus. When there are no rains, people can tap into groundwater, which is water from the rains that collects deep underground where the soil lies on top of Earth’s firm surface of solid rock. Groundwater reserves in most of Punjab are huge but in other places, these are not as much because rainwater comes too fast to be absorbed into the ground easily.

The people of the Indus Basin have to find ways to use the rain water as best as they can before the monsoon ends,  followed by a nine-month drought of sorts. Thus, there are reservoirs to store large amounts of water and there are canals, known as non-perennial canals (canals filled all year round are perennial canals) that fill up in times of rain. There are inundation canals that fill up in times of flooding. There are many embankments, such as dams, barrages, and levees which block the flow of water, allowing water to stay where needed. All in all, Pakistan has one of the biggest water management systems in the world.

The Indus Basin is the bulk of the nation but makes up only half of the territory. The rest of Pakistan is basically the fringes of the nation. These areas are sparsely populated and little-developed and often are remote and inaccessible. In the flat areas and even some of the mountainous terrain, very few rivers run through and the soil is very arid. Thus, the main source of water for the people is precipitation, which scarcely comes most of the time. It is during the summer monsoon that most of the rain comes, except in the very outliers of the nation, western Balochistan, FATA, Gilgit-Baltistan, and northern Khyber-Paktunkwha. Outside of the summer monsoon, precipitation comes largely from Western Disturbances, which deliver rain and snow in the winter in large amounts for short periods. With rainwater and meltwater coming in large amounts for short periods of time, the local people have had to develop their own various methods of water management to make do with such a barren environment, such as earthen structures that slow the flow of flowing water so that it is absorbed into the ground and wells.

So in most other countries, most of the water that people need is made available to them naturally. But Pakistan is a country where people have had to get much of the water for themselves. We are a nation that needs to manage water to a particularly high degree, hence having one of the world’s biggest water management systems. This is why World Water Day has enormous significance for us.

The entire water situation in Pakistan that has just been explained is responsible for Pakistan being among the countries facing the greatest water challenges. Problems surrounding freshwater in Pakistan are numerous and severe. There are issues with how much water is available to Pakistanis, what the quality of the water being used is, and what effects flooding and erosion have on land.

Water related problems frequently manifest themselves in disasters. Water can be a player behind the occurrence of disasters, such as floods and droughts, and disasters can have effects on water, such as a nuclear power plant meltdown contaminating water supplies with radiation or the same floods causing water supplies that stay put afterwards to be contaminated with waste. Water problems can increase the vulnerability of people to disasters and people affected by disasters can suffer from issues with their water usage. Clearly, Pakistan’s freshwater issues are a major factor in the risk of disasters the country faces.

Things are only getting worse and will continue getting worse in the future with no end in sight. As civilization continues its rapid pace of development in the modern era, great changes are being made to the natural environment, with bad consequences for people, and the hydrosphere, the realm of nature consisting of water, is among its most severely affected components. Freshwater in Pakistan is being ravaged by all sorts of human factors both within and without Pakistan. Global climate change will make the monsoon more erratic and melt the snow and glaciers that supply Pakistan with most of its water. Deforestation, especially what is going on in the mountains where the rivers come from, will change the flow of water in the environment and increase erosion. Pollution will increase as development will cause Pakistan’s water supplies to be contaminated. Finally, Pakistan’s high population growth will push water supplies to their limit as more people use more of what water there is and the amount of freshwater in the world is not going to increase along with us.

World Water Day should be a reminder to us of how important water management is to Pakistan as a nation. Water, being the basis (along with other aspects of nature such as soil) of civilization is vital to the existence and well-being of Pakistan. Every Pakistan Day, we are reminded of the importance of our nation and take inspiration in what our nation is capable of being. We get reminded of what is important to Pakistan. But much of what really is important, we ignore. We therefore need to observe World Water Day more closely. In fact, World Water Day is March 22, and Pakistan day is March 23. The commemorations of this two-day period should be merged. On March 22, we Pakistanis should look at the water situation in Pakistan and focus on ways to fix our water challenges and continue to do that the next day, Pakistan Day, which should be a day when, at the same time we look back at the past, we look at where our nation should go from here and focus on ways to make our nation better.

The coming into being of Pakistan, a process which began on March 23, 1940, is of great meaning. We also need to look at where Pakistan is now. Then we look at where Pakistan will be going, which depends on where we take it.

Pakistan cannot be a viable nation unless politicians, policymakers, and citizens pay due attention to the nation’s water. It really underlines all other issues. In our nation’s seventieth year of existence, we need to become more cognizant of what made the existence of our nation possible historically. People were able to bring civilization to this inhospitable land by tapping the otherwise inaccessible sources of water here. This is how things have always been since then but now, things are not going to be the same for Pakistan any longer. We are basically heading into one huge water crisis, a looming disaster for our existence if you will, and Pakistan will find its very survival in jeopardy unless we find ways to stop what is happening, or adapt to it.

The world has continued developing at a breakneck speed and this means that the capacity of the planet to sustain humanity is being pushed to the brink, with earth’s water resources being particularly vulnerable.

In commemorating Pakistan’s history, we usually look at the history that began after August 14, 1947 or even 23 March, 1940. But it is important also that we also look at the entire history of the land that constitutes Pakistan. That provides us largely with a history of water management. Proper study of this past can guide us significantly.

Pakistan’s Indus Basin was one of the great cradles of civilization. Here, four thousand years ago, there developed what is known as the Indus Valley Civilization or Mohenjo Daro and Harappa. It was the foundation of civilization in South Asia. The people of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa are not our ethnic and cultural ancestors very much. The civilization collapsed when people from the west moved into the Indus region and displaced them, creating a new civilization which developed over the millennia and spread across the Indian Subcontinent. From the west, invaders always came to create a new civilization in what is now Pakistan and take it eastwards. Pakistan’s true roots began when Islam spread into South Asia and became the main religion across the northwest of the Subcontinent. This civilization reached its height with the Mughal Empire, which began in the Indus region and ultimately extended over almost all of the Subcontinent. The Mughals and the mighty empire they created can be said to be the successor to our nation. The empire lasted for centuries but slowly fell prey to the inevitable tide of European economic and military expansion across the globe and became a British colony, the most important colony of the biggest empire in the world. Here, fittingly, there sprang the world’s biggest independence movement which finally attained its goal in 1947. Thanks to the work of our founder, Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah, the colony split into two nations, of which Pakistan, a homeland for the Muslims of India, gained independence a day before the other.

Behind all of this rich history lies water. How people learned to deal with this one most important resource determined all else that happened in the history of this land. The Indus Valley civilization is particularly noteworthy as it was the pioneer in water management in the Indus Basin. Building an irrigation system in the vicinity of rivers, and based upon flood management, their achievements were many and their experience may have much to teach Pakistan now. Indus irrigation, however, did not take off until the expansion of Muslims into the region, who spread a network of inundation canals as they expanded their rule. The Mughals took this indigenous water management to its height, building more inundation canals. When the British sailed from faraway Europe and took things over, everything changed. They brought an absolute revolution in the management of the Indus Basin, developing water systems to a great degree and instigating many new projects. But all of this was for their benefit and not for that of the locals, so things did not really improve for the land of Pakistan. Indeed, drought and famine became greater hazards than before.

After Pakistan’s independence, we have been accelerating this development. We now have the opportunity to take the know-how and the capability that Western civilization brought to the entire world and use it for the benefit of all Pakistanis. But we must also look back to how things were done in our ancient past, as they may benefit us as well.

The UN assigns a certain theme to every World Water Day. Examples include Water and Disasters (2004), Coping with Water Scarcity (2007), and Why Waste Water? (2017). Every World Water Day, Pakistan should focus on each theme and how it applies to the country. Then, for the whole year afterwards, the nation should work on the issues dealt with by that theme and then switch its focus by the next 22 March to what theme that World Water Day has.

The theme for World Water Day 2018 is Nature for Water. It is all about the idea of working with and using nature in water management. Examples applicable to Pakistan include planting forests to prevent flooding and erosion and restoring wetlands to reduce water pollution. Our freshwater supplies are a part of nature and so it is important to utilize the workings of nature and to behave in a way that accommodates and sustains nature. It could even be the ultimate solution to our water challenges. Therefore, in the wake of this year’s World Water Day, it is time for Pakistan to turn its attention towards natural solutions.

In fact, working and living in harmony with nature may be the path that Pakistan needs to take to ensure its future and to find solutions for all the challenges that lie ahead. For too long, the world has been exploiting nature in a haphazard way, trying to alter nature to fit in with the desires of people. It is becoming apparent more and more that this is not working any longer or is only providing short-term benefits and that we are in fact headed towards environmental catastrophe worldwide. In order to sustain our future, we must sustain the natural environment we live in. Change will also occur, as it is an inevitable part of the world we live in now, but it must be done in a way that maintains the systems that have been operating in nature since time began and carefully using what is there in nature for new things. Now that Pakistan has turned seventy, it is time that we turn our attention towards this path for our future and do all we can to tread it.

When it comes to disaster management, harmony with nature is the best strategy for dealing with natural disasters. A natural disaster simply happens because a natural process, upon interacting with human society, causes great harm to people. The natural process itself is simply a part of nature and is not bad. What we need is to learn how to live alongside the workings of nature without being harmed by them. It may seem a compelling idea to mitigate natural hazards by altering the natural processes themselves, but it often backfires or has drawbacks.

For instance, flood control measures such as building levees around rivers disrupt the buildup of floodplains, decreasing the fertility of the soil and even worsening any flood that manages to break through the levees by preventing floodwaters from depositing sediment that makes the floodplains higher and therefore less likely to be inundated. For a hypothetical scenario, in America, which is famed for its tendency to try to control nature, people have often suggested destroying hazardous hurricanes by detonating hydrogen bombs in them before they make landfall. However, it will not work as even the biggest nukes created by humans are very weak compared to the power of a hurricane and the hurricane will then just become radioactive. Even if people somehow had the capability to get rid of hurricanes, hurricanes transport huge amounts of heat from the tropics towards the higher latitudes. If they were to be stopped, tropical regions would become too hot for people to live there and northern latitudes would become much colder.

Playing around with nature also is making much of the world’s natural hazards much worse. Through our modern activities, we are altering the air, water, and land to a great extent and this is causing natural processes to change to a high degree. The cutting down of trees and the removal of vegetation, deforestation, increasing erosion such as landslides and water erosion which makes floods worse. Trying to fight every single fire that breaks out in a forest causes flammable plant matter to build up, so that the occasional fire that escapes extinguishing can spread through the whole forest. Improper management of farmland has often contributed to drought. The biggest human impact of all is global warming, the warming of the atmosphere by our pumping of various gases into the air. Global warming is postulated to make a huge number of natural hazards more severe, such as floods, droughts, hurricanes, heatwaves (obviously), landslides, epidemics, wildfires, blizzards, and earthquakes. The last two may seem surprising but it goes to show that nature works in very complex ways and that is why any change we make to her can have great consequences out of our control.

That is the crux of the matter. We may have more control over the planet but it makes us cause more things to happen which are out of our control. That is the price we have often paid for shaping nature to our liking and we are now clearly heading into a future where the price is too high to bear. It all comes down to what are the fundamentals of the relationship between humanity and nature. Nature is all that which exists by itself and operates by itself without being created or run by people and we humans exist within nature and everything we need is derived from nature.

A common philosophy that many people followed through history, especially in the West, was the view of nature as an essentially hostile and unreliable force. The thinking goes that the natural world we live in abides by its own whims and not ours at all. It therefore keeps us in danger by treading on us whenever it wants and does not readily provide us with all that is of benefit to us. Whether it is the other living things we inhabit  the environment with, with which we are in endless strife and struggle, or the environment itself, which exists in complete indifference to us, we live in a tough world, a world of storms and starvation, in which we had to look to ourselves to survive. And in order for humanity to thrive and to prosper, to make the conditions of our life better, we have to alter the world, to basically take it apart and reassemble it to create all that is good for us.

To some extent, this is true. But it is not the whole picture. The world may not be made to accommodate us, but we are made to accommodate the world. We are adapted to the natural conditions. Furthermore, nature is a very powerful force. The way it is already is a world which we can live in and while humanity is becoming increasingly a powerful force, nature is still way above us. It will respond to our influence the way it wants and will never be fully tamed by us. Nature is powerful and the natural environment, which is to say the balance that nature maintains for our benefit, is at the same time fragile. Our world is vast and dynamic and we people are an entity wielding little power in the face of it. It is best that we get the world to help us and help it at the same time, rather than making futile attempts to subdue it. It is what will take us far.

Nature is divided into two basic kinds, the abiotic and the biotic. The abiotic is what exists and operates by random processes. It has no purpose of its own except to abide by physical laws and things are the way they are. It is the earth, the water, and the air. It is what makes up the bulk of the world. The biotic, which exists within the context of the abiotic, is the living world, all the living things which exist for the purpose of providing for and expanding their existence, which actively work towards that end.

The abiotic contains immense power. It is basically almost everything that there is and so its forms and its forces both are largely immune to being shaped by us how we want and can be of immense use to us if we only learn how to harness them properly. Though they do not exist for any particular purpose, the flow of a river is a monumental force and a mountain is a monumental form and both can benefit us greatly if we accommodate ourselves to them.

The biotic, though being of a lesser scale, has shaped the abiotic to an enormous degree with the result of making the world habitable for living beings like humans. The sum of other living things also is a massive realm compared to what people have created and living things are shaped to perfection in all that they can do. You can understand that if you compare the very hands that people have, which is part of the living world, with what those hands have created. The hands have a finesse that is lacked by all that is artificial. The living world offers up an endless variety of other incredibly marvelous forms which are made to be as capable as possible and be adapted to live with the natural conditions of the world. Compare a bird with a plane, a whale with a ship, and a tree with a tower. The plane, the ship, and the tower are much mightier by the plain outlook. But by examining carefully, you can see that there is so much that the bird, the whale, and the tree have which our artificial creations lack, much that ultimately will make them win out in terms of what is sustainable for the world.

When it comes to disasters, there are countless ways nature can lessen hazardous events or protect us from them. One of the main aspects of nature which can keep us safe is vegetation. Plants, from the moss that carpets dirt to trees that tower above us high into the air, are the building blocks of most environments and create a suitable space for people to live in. Plant roots hold soil firmly in place, thus preventing landslides, and landslides do not travel far when tree are in the way. Plants absorb great amounts of water and so keep flooding down. Mangrove forests and coastal wetlands block storm surges and tsunamis. Trees protect us from heatwaves by providing us with shade and cooling the air through transpiration.

Blind abiotic processes also protect us in many ways. Consider that the constant action of waves at coastlines build up sand dunes which protect us from the huge, dangerous waves which strike whenever a hurricane is passing over or an earthquake rumbles in the ocean. Then there is the other erosion process, already mentioned, in which floods suppress the capacity of future floods by depositing sediment that raises floodplains.

Some of the biggest hazards that afflict humanity come from tiny animals such as the mosquitoes that transmit deadly diseases causing epidemics and the locusts that devour vast tracts of grain crops causing famines. While we try to get rid of such dangerous critters by pouring chemicals that we create into the environment to kill them, which often cause great environmental harm, we are better off turning to the natural forces that keep their populations down, provided we learn how we can harness them properly, other animals. There are everywhere predators such as birds, frogs, spiders, dragonflies, and bats which are made for going after insects and killing as many of them as possible, which works better than creating some chemicals with indiscriminate effects and randomly pouring them into the environment, where we do not know where they will go. By carefully controlling ecological conditions, we can make wild predators eat more of the pestilent insects so they are mostly wiped out.

By turning to nature, we can not only stay safe from such calamities and many others, we can improve things generally for our nation. That is important for ensuring that Pakistan has a viable future and that we avoid the total calamity we are certainly headed for. Today is Earth Day, 21 April. 2018. Earth Day is a day set aside to commemorate the fact that our existence and our well-being depends on the state of our Earth. It is a perfect time that the national discourse of Pakistan turns towards cooperation with nature. The best way for the Earth to continue sustaining us is for us to sustain it and let it be the way it is.

Now that our nation is seventy years old, this is the direction we must take. Our celebration of seventy years of Pakistan is extensive and prolonged but along with it must come a discourse regarding what we must do for our nation from now on and we must start doing it. We primarily must recognize that Pakistan’s past is different from what the future will be.

Seventy years of our nation’s history has primarily been about political and social issues. An entire era, 1914 to 1991, was continuously a time of massive upheaval all across the world, with people going through events such as World War 1, World War 2, decolonization, and the Cold War. It was in this global environment that Pakistan came into being and in which it spent its first few decades. It was an era where the pressing concern of people and nations across the world was their relationship with other people and nations. Pakistan was no exception, forming because of opposition to British rule and concern over Hindu-Muslim relations and then going through wars with India and the breakaway of East Pakistan, as well as being caught up in the Cold War.

After 1991, everything calmed down and we since then have lived in a world of tranquility. For Pakistan, it can be seen in the limited nature of our final war with India in 1999 (although Pakistan is unfortunately now suffering from one of the greatest upheavals that is occurring in today’s world, events related to the War on Terror). However, due to the rapid development of civilization, in today’s world, people and nations everywhere have a new pressing concern, their relationship with the air, the water, the earth, and all other living things inhabiting the planet with us. This relationship is what is now hitting rock bottom and that is what the future of the world, including Pakistan, is going to be like from now on.

Throughout its seventy years of existence, Pakistan has made it through so much from Partition to the insurgency in the northwest. Now, it is time the nation realizes what it faces from here on, a completely different kind of problem, a severe problem, which will soon became of an existential magnitude. Because the situation is unlike what humanity has had to face before, to make it through our inevitable future and to handle the environmental crises, we need to gain knowledge. We need to study the problems and we need to think up of solutions. We need to find out everything we can about the world we are heading into. Plus, all of us must play our part in handling the problem. Every Pakistani needs to get involved and we need to work closely with all other nations.

Pakistan has survived the upheavals of the past and it is vital that we spring into action and confront the threats to our survival that lie ahead. That is something we must start doing right now.

Author’s bio:

Shahzeb Khan is a journalist and environmental activist. His work has been commended by Barack Obama for outstanding achievement in environmental stewardship.  He is the director of Pakistan’s People-Led Disaster Management. He can be reached at shahzebkhansaheb@gmail.com

 

 

Pakistan Day: Our Need for National Disaster Resilience

“My message to all of you is of hope, courage, and confidence. Let us mobilize all our resources in a systematic and organized way and tackle the grave issues that confront us with grim determination and discipline worthy of a great nation.”

Quaid-i-Azam

 

Today, our nation celebrates Pakistan Day. It is the anniversary of the Lahore Resolution of 23 March, 1940, wherein members of the All-India Muslim League gathered together and issued the declaration that when India is granted independence from the British, areas of the territory which have a Muslim-majority population should be under separate administration from the rest of India, to prevent the marginalization of Muslims by the Hindu majority. Thus, the notion of Pakistan was formally adopted and the movement for Pakistan started. Seven years later,  Pakistan was born on August 14, 1947.

August 14 is thus designated as Independence Day while 23 March is reserved for officially celebrating Pakistan itself.

These dates commemorate a very special time in history. European colonial empires used to rule most of the world. After World War 2, their unraveling began to proceed. The first colony to gain independence was the British Raj, which was the most important colony of the biggest empire in the world and where there already was a massive independence movement. Due to the duel and determined struggle for freedom, the Raj split into two countries, Pakistan and India. Independence of other colonies continued until decolonization was complete all over the world decades later. The world being fully divided into independent nation states is therefore a process that began with the Subcontinent. What is more, Pakistan got independence the day before India. Therefore, our nation holds the distinct honor of being the very first country to emerge in the wave of independence that swept the world clean of imperialism.

We have been on a journey of seventy years as an independent nation-state and it is time for us to push further to make our nation greater, for which our unique heritage can be a motivation. We were already a role model for the world in being first to gain independence and in governing ourselves, and we can be even more than that by becoming a role model in disaster risk reduction.

Pakistan is particularly vulnerable to hazards. Since time immemorial, our land has been regularly wracked by disasters and they are a particularly high level concern for Pakistan nowadays.

Our country is blessed with a large and dynamic variety of natural environments, from the blue waters of the Arabian Sea to the towering mountains of the Karakorum and the Himalayas. This, however, comes at the cost of putting us at risk of natural disasters, so much so that Pakistan is a world hotspot for natural hazards. Since its formation, our country has seen tremendous progress in the form of rapid development and population growth. Infrastructure, industry, and agriculture have expanded considerably. But much of this has been done without careful planning.

If Pakistan is to make something greater of itself and become a better country for its citizens to live in, it is vital we work to make our nation and our people safe from disasters. It will be a considerable task requiring the application of all aspects of the nation. It is the vital responsibility of the nation’s authorities, the government, military, police, civil servants, and emergency services, to work to ensure this. But more than others, it is important for ordinary Pakistanis to help other Pakistanis who are suffering or at risk. The people of Pakistan must gain the capacity to cope with disasters and be able to protect themselves.

Our nation’s seventieth year should be the time for us to start moving towards building greater protection from hazards. Pakistan has an enormous amount of potential that can be harnessed to achieve the goal.

Disasters are matters of urgency.  People are always most ready to do their best when it comes to emergencies, to handling threats to themselves. A Pakistan equipped with disaster management capability can be strong enough to manage all of its problems. It can thrive and prosper.

Just as Pakistan led the way to freedom within the developing world, it has the potential to lead in management of climate change induced natural disasters. It can become the role model for the world, especially for other developing and emerging countries, in disaster management.

77 years ago, our forebears began the fight to throw off the shackles of foreign rule and 70 years ago, we finally won the struggle for a free Pakistan. Now, it is time to begin the fight to vanquish the threat of disasters that we all live under and win the struggle for a secure and prosperous Pakistan.

Lessons from a Global Spate of Disasters in 2017

By: Shahzeb Khan

DUO OF HURRICANES

Every September 11, the United States of America observes a day of mourning and remembrance of the terrorist attacks that struck the nation on that date in 2001. 3,000 people died in what is known as the deadliest terrorist attack in history.

It is a day for remembering an event which represents the capacity of human beings for harming other human beings. It is also an example of how much harm can be inflicted on people by the misuse of modern technology and infrastructure. Americans observe September 11 each year as a day of remembrance of the tragedy and those who died in it and to show solidarity with those who suffered.

But on the September 11 that has recently passed in 2017, 16 years after the attacks, America was for the first time not focused on the anniversary. That is because it was dealing with a calamity that was happening right then, a disaster that, this time, was natural. This was also the time the country was reeling from another natural disaster that had just occurred. On September 10, Hurricane Irma, the most powerful hurricane to hit the United States in over a decade, made landfall in the Florida Keys and ravaged Florida with heavy winds, rain, and waves. It is one of the most severe natural disasters to hit the United States in recent history.

So is Hurricane Harvey, which struck Texas in late August. Both storms were part of that year’s Atlantic hurricane season, the seventh worst on record and the worst since 2005. The Atlantic hurricane season of 2005, running through the second half of that year, was the most active Atlantic hurricane season ever and shattered several records in recorded history. One of these record-breaking disasters was Hurricane Wilma, which was the most intense hurricane ever known to occur in the Atlantic Ocean. The storm, which made landfall in Florida in October 2005, also was the last major tropical hurricane to hit the mainland United States for the next twelve years, a record breaking hiatus.

The hiatus ended in August 2017 by Hurricane Harvey. Harvey began life as a tropical wave off the coast of Africa which moved into the Caribbean, strengthening into a tropical storm and then weakening into a depression by August 20. During this time, the Caribbean was only lightly affected. The weather system then moved into the Gulf of Mexico and strengthened rapidly until it became a hurricane on August 24. It quickly became very large, a Category 4, and made landfall in Texas, affecting a wide stretch of coastline. Then, for the next two days, it stopped moving. Normally, hurricanes move inland and then weaken, but Harvey stayed at the coast for some time. This had devastating consequences.

Hurricanes are essentially giant engines of air fueled by warm water. When water evaporates from the ocean, which can be increased by winds, it carries with it a large amount of heat. When that vapor condenses and turns into rain, the heat is transferred to the air. The warming air rises and as it does so, the wind underneath becomes faster. In tropical oceans, this can result in a feedback cycle that produces hurricanes. Air rises because of precipitation, resulting in wind underneath increasing, producing more evaporation that produces more precipitation. The result is a hurricane, a massive storm with extreme rain and extreme winds which create extreme waves in the ocean, which move across the ocean at great speeds. When hurricanes reach land, (known as landfall), they can create a major disaster through their wind which moves things around, rains which cause severe and rapid flooding, and waves, known as storm surge, which batter and destroy the coast. Hurricanes then usually continue moving, either inland, where they then weaken because there is no more water to fuel them, or away from land in the other direction.

This was not the case for Hurricane Harvey. Constantly remaining connected to the ocean, its fuel source, it managed to keep pouring down a tremendous amount of rain over Texas’s coastal areas, including Houston, America’s fourth biggest city in terms of population, for days, leading to extreme flooding, even as Harvey proceeded to rapidly weaken. Harvey then moved over the ocean again and then moved inland over Louisiana on 30 August, dissipating as it went north. Along the way, it produced flooding and tornadoes in several states.

In six days of hovering over America’s Gulf Coast, Harvey dumped a record amount of rainfall for a hurricane in the mainland US, 51 inches, resulting in 27 trillion gallons of water flooding Texas and Louisiana. It was truly a disaster of biblical proportions. The devastation, especially in Houston, was severe. 81 people in America died. Recovery has been going on for several months and is still not completed.

Harvey was an unusual storm. A complex set of circumstances led to the disaster ensuing from Harvey’s formation. This is what scientists say they were. The hotter the ocean, the bigger a hurricane can be, and the Gulf of Mexico was warmer than usual that month. In addition, there was a small area of water, known as an eddy, which was warmer than the rest of the Gulf. Passage over the eddy led to Harvey’s rapid intensification. Then, when Harvey reached the Gulf Coast, it was trapped between two high pressure systems which were roughly of equal strength. The hurricane could not move because opposing forces were pushing on it from east and west.

The nature of the hurricane itself is only half of the explanation for the massive disaster it caused. The other is what kind of land, environment, and society did the hurricane strike. America’s Gulf Coast is very prone to hurricanes. However, the people living there still have not become completely resilient to this natural hazard. It was plainly evident during Hurricane Katrina and it was evident this time as well, particularly for Houston.

Houston is a very large city and the deluge it suffered while under Harvey is one of the most extreme in history. Thus, Harvey’s impact on Houston is one of history’s greatest cases of urban flooding. The city of Houston has a population of two million people while six million people live around it in the greater metropolitan area. The Houston area is on flat, low-lying ground next to the ocean and has seen unfettered development over the years, resulting in urban sprawl spreading over wide areas. Some of the development is designed with little regard for natural hazards in mind. For example, vast sections of concrete have been laid down over what was once grassland.

Flooding in cities is a phenomenon of its own, distinct from flooding in other environments. Floods can be particularly severe hazards in cities for a wide variety of reasons. In more natural landscapes, floodwaters tend to be quickly absorbed by the soil. In urban areas, however, the ground tends to be thickly paved with cement and other materials that seal out water. Cities have a drainage system consisting of holes in the ground leading to underground channels that move away from the city. But it is still often not as effective as naturally drainable ground, especially when the drains get clogged with debris, which often happens in floods. Then, floodwaters in cities mostly have to keep moving until they leave the urban area. Also, cities are a complex cauldron of all sorts of things put together and so a flood that sweeps through such a place can interact with the city to have all sorts of effects that imperil the people. In Houston, for example, damage to factories resulted in toxic chemicals contaminating the floodwaters.

No matter how prosperous or well-developed it is, a large and populous city is often potentially a good host to a disaster. Though cities often are deliberately located in a safe area, for reasons of economic and social advantage, many cities are built in a hazard zone. The most prominent example is that most of the world’s cities are on the coast so that they can have access to maritime transport and commerce. This makes them vulnerable to the two great oceanic hazards; cyclones and tsunamis.

While America was coping with Hurricane Harvey, meteorologists spotted a tropical wave emerge from the coast of Africa on August 27, 2017. The wave moved across the ocean and turned into another hurricane, Irma. Moving west towards the Caribbean, Irma strengthened rapidly. It turned into a Category 4 hurricane on September 4 and became Category 5 the next day. The hurricane was massive and extremely powerful and only continued getting stronger. At maximum strength, the storm made landfall on the island of Barbuda in the Caribbean. Barbuda was completely devastated. 95 percent of all buildings were destroyed and the entire population was evacuated to the nearby island of Antigua. The island became uninhabited for the first time in 300 years. If the government in Barbuda did not rule over Antigua as well, an entire nation would have been wiped off the face of the earth. Irma went on to make landfall in several more islands while affecting a very wide area. On September 9, Irma passed over Cuba as a Category 5 storm. It then rapidly weakened and emerged north of the island as Category 3. Now, it was onto Florida. More than six million people in Florida were ordered to evacuate, an instruction which if obeyed fully would be the largest evacuation in US history.

Irma made its first landfall on the southern tip of the state on September 10, with winds that were 135 miles per hour. On September 11, 2017, the massive hurricane proceeded to move inland up the peninsula. As it did, it rapidly weakened and fell below hurricane intensity the same day. But the damage it wreaked was phenomenal. Irma knocked out power for more than a million people four hours after making landfall in Florida. More than nine million power outages in the mainland US were to occur. Forecasts initially stated that Irma was to make a direct hit on the Miami Metropolitan Area, where it could cause massive damage. But the forecasts turned out to be wrong as the storm was not so severe there. On September 12, Irma moved north of Florida and turned into a tropical depression along the border between Alabama and Georgia. The storm system moved far north into the United State, producing flooding and tornadoes along the way before dissipating on September 15.

The trail of destruction left in the storm’s wake was unprecedented. In the Caribbean, affected communities were left largely isolated as the hurricane destroyed transportation routes, preventing the delivery of aid. Relief efforts at first mostly came from outside the Caribbean, especially from countries which owned Caribbean islands or used to. The total death toll from Irma is 146. Most of these fatalities occurred in Florida, where 93 people died, although only eighteen were killed directly by the hurricane. The aftermath of Irma was deadlier. It usually happens that the disaster does not end when nature ends it. When the hurricane has passed or the tornado has ended or the quake has stopped, the crisis often has just begun.

Hurricane Irma itself was also unprecedented. Irma is the strongest hurricane on record in the Atlantic outside of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. It was a Category 5 hurricane for three days, the longest a Category 5 lasted on record. Irma maintained winds that were 185 miles per hour or above for 37 hours, longer than all known storms. And this is the first time in recorded history that two major hurricanes struck the United States mainland in a single hurricane season.

There is a sort of irony in the fact that on the anniversary of 9-11, America was ravaged by a severe natural disaster and reeling from another. The terrorist attacks in 2001 were a massive shock to America and made the nation regard terrorism as a monumentally important problem to deal with. Enormous amounts of resources were poured into combatting terrorism, including into the newly formed Department of Homeland Security. As part of the boost in America’s anti-terrorism budget, significant cutback to America’s disaster management system was made, such as the lowering of funding for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This significantly curtailed the country’s ability to deal with natural disasters. The shortfall became clear during the prodigious 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, when Hurricane Katrina wreaked tremendous havoc on America’s Gulf Coast and the federal government’s response proved to be highly inadequate.

One wonders if dealing with terrorism really should come at the expense of dealing with natural disasters, as both, after all, are hazards. In fact, FEMA’s name is the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a terrorist attack of the scale of 9-11 should qualify as an emergency FEMA would deal with. Instead, terror attacks fall under the domain of the Department of Homeland Security. Emergency management apparently refers to threats from natural or accidental occurrences and security refers to threats deliberately wrought onto people by other people. Surely, the two types of threats differ only in cause.

Homeland Security works to predict and prevent terror attacks. That is completely different from the management of natural disasters, even prediction of, preparation for, and risk reduction of natural disasters, or for that matter of accidental disasters (like industrial disasters). It would be a rather big burden for FEMA to engage in activities such as wiretapping, airline security, and monitoring radicalism in foreign countries at the same time it runs weather stations and sends scientists out to examine fault lines. But whenever a terrorist attack occurs, FEMA can deal with the response, rescuing people and delivering them to safety. So, the priorities involve different things but one must still order them appropriately.

It seems to be a common human trait. A mother may take the matter more seriously if somebody hit her child in the face than if her kid fell down and bruised himself. A bad event becomes all the more painful for people when other people worked to bring it upon them. We can see it when the killing of a few black men by police officers sparked off the massive Black Lives Matter movement while the deaths of tens of thousands of people every day from automobile accidents in the US does not elicit a similar push for traffic safety. Similarly, you can see that Hurricane Katrina was half as deadly as 9-11 but elicited a tiny fraction of grief and shock from the nation compared to the terror attack. The problem with such a mentality is that it results in people ignoring the danger from nonhuman forces. So it was that Al Gore at one of his presentations declared that in the coming decades, sea levels could rise so much that the 9-11 Memorial Centre in New York City would be submerged under the ocean and says, “Is it possible that we can prepare for threats other than from terrorists?”

That is the big question. Sure, in typical parlance,  ‘threat’ refers to what humans can do and ‘hazard’ refers to what nonhuman forces can do to people. But threats and hazards are both dangers defined by the suffering and the harm they cause. Harm is harm, regardless of whether somebody commits it or it happens naturally. Thus, we must take hazards as seriously as we take threats.

It may be wise to integrate dangers from our fellow men, such as war and terrorism, and from nature into a unified framework of disaster risk requiring a common strategy for management. Of course, protecting people from human violence and natural disasters involves completely different ways of doing things. Compare security checkpoints to prevent terror attacks with infrastructure designs to mitigate flooding, for example. But the effects of both such kinds of events are the same, typically property destruction, injuries, and deaths, and the response that needs to be launched when they already occur has to be the same. This means that regardless of what treatment we give to hazards in our heads, it is important for a nation with people who live under risk of both violence and natural calamities to not give undue priority to one over the other. What happens to people in the end is what really matters. It is important that we protect people and mitigate their suffering.

Usually, many more people suffer from natural disasters than from human-caused disasters. Sometimes, the situation is reversed, such as globally during World War 2, but only temporarily. Al Gore’s prophecy came true prematurely and briefly when, seven years after Katrina, there came the unprecedented Super-storm Sandy in late 2012, wreaking tremendous havoc on the same city that was the primary victim of the 9-11 attacks. Hopefully, hurricanes Harvey and Irma, affecting America while it was commemorating the attacks, will serve as the final reminder to the country that hazards other than terrorism also need to be dealt with.

HEATWAVES AND WILDFIRES

America had been coping with plenty of that in the year 2017, not just Harvey and Irma. While being affected by the hurricanes, the country had been suffering for some time from other severe natural disasters, heat waves and wildfires.

Massive heat waves started in the western United States in June 2017, creating extreme temperatures in many areas. In Phoenix, it became so hot that planes could not take off. The heat waves, which were caused by a high-pressure system persisting over the western United States, lessened but continued for months and became more severe again in late August. By early September, temperatures over many parts of California were at the highest since temperatures there began to be recorded 150 years ago. In San Francisco, temperatures rose to a sweltering 106 degrees. The summer of 2017 turned out to be the hottest known in Californian history.

Heat waves are dangerous weather events. The National Weather Service in America counted the number of weather-related events in the last thirty years and found that an average of 130 people died of heatstroke every year, more than from any other weather event, making heat waves the deadliest weather phenomenon in the US. It may seem strange that in America, tracking for weather events such as tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods is very well developed, but they seem to find it harder to track and warn of heat. But a violent storm is much more noticeable, and scary looking, than a rise in the mercury.

In poorer countries, heat waves tend to be far more much more dangerous than in rich, developed areas. In the latter, people can protect themselves with spacious shelters and air-conditioning. But many people in the world lack access to such electronic facilities and live in houses that are more likely to heat up. People may even be homeless and working in the sun for extended periods of time. The situation gets even worse if there is a shortage of clean water or trees to take shade under. In such conditions, heat waves can be great hazards.

Excessive heat can kill people by inducing heatstroke and a variety of other health problems. Heavy sweating can cause the body’s salt levels to drop, which can cause cramp. Sweating can also cause dehydration and if one is still exposed to the heat while being too dehydrated to sweat adequately, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, and headache can result. Heat gets worse if the air is also humid, because the higher the humidity, the less water evaporates and so people are not so able to cool themselves by sweating. The temperature-humidity equation is what is needed to assess the danger from hot temperatures and it can be measured by covering a thermometer in a wet cloth and seeing how quickly and how low the mercury drops. Heat waves can also cause material damage. The 2017 heat waves, besides grounding planes, made the metal in train tracks expand and caused power outages as extensive air-conditioning overwhelmed power supplies. But this pales in comparison with the massive environmental effects heat waves can have, particularly drought and wildfires.

America saw its fair share of drought resulting from the high-pressure system, directly hampering agriculture. But a much more serious bout of disaster that was to ensue was fire. The high pressure, which prevented rainfall, and the heat, which dried up the land and the vegetation, caused a spate of large wildfires across the western side of North America that started in July and went on for months. People were not expecting this fire season to be so bad, because the western United States saw high levels of rainfall in early 2017 which made the land moist. But then the unprecedented heat waves undid all that. The rains and heat waves in tandem created the perfect conditions for fire, as the former created a lot of vegetation and the latter dried it all up.

The fires raged across a wide area, from California to Montana, and extended all the way to Canada, where more than two million acres burned. It was Canada’s worst fire season on record. The largest wildfire in Los Angeles’s history happened at the beginning of September, the La Tuna Fire (major wildfires in America are usually named after the place they were first detected). The fire however was not very damaging because the city is made resistant to wildfires after it suffered the very destructive Bel-Air fire of 1961. A fire in northern California, the Ponderosa Fire, lasted nearly a month, from August 29 to September 23. By the time of Hurricane Irma, the combined area burning was bigger than the US state of Delaware. North America’s extremely destructive fire season was to continue in the months afterwards without abating.

Wildfires are dangerous. They are a particular hazard in the western United States because high rates of development have resulted in towns and neighborhoods directly meeting with wildernesses, a border that is known as the urban-wild-land interface. Usually, rural areas and farmland separate the two, but not very much in California. Wildfires have always been a common natural occurrence in California’s vast forests, woodlands, shrub-lands, and grasslands, but now, artificial circumstances have made them a greater occurrence. For example, fires are often started by unattended campfires and dropped cigarettes.

Also, the fire suppression regime that was vigorously maintained in California’s woods since the early 1900s backfired. The authorities made it a policy of extinguishing every single fire they found in the forests, no matter how small. This resulted in dead foliage such as logs, the fuel for wildfires, accumulating in great amounts. Thus, if any fire did escape being contained by fire fighters, it was now able to become much bigger, whereas if fires were allowed to burn naturally, there would just be frequent small fires preventing the build-up of fuel. America has recently realized its mistake but the forests are still filled with logs from a century of fire suppression.

Trying to control nature often backfires or results in drawback, as the United States has learned time and time again with its human power attitude since 1776. Besides the forest fire-fighting, Americans in the western part of USA got into the habit of killing rattlesnakes whenever they heard them. Rattlesnakes are venomous and attack if you get close to them, but make noise to warn you, thus keeping you safe. During mass killing of rattle snakes, the warning sound turned into their death warrant. After decades of such cull, rattlesnakes have become quieter. This means that they do not warn people as much, making it more likely that you bump into them and get bitten.

Given the variety of dangers lurking in the mighty pine forests of California, the Americans acted without knowing what their actions would entail. After all, wildfires are environmental hazards, for forests are systems that interact with and integrate various aspects of the planet. This means that a huge variety of complex circumstances can be behind the occurrence and behavior of wildfires. Thus, there are many different reasons for wildfires having become more hazardous in the western United States, not all of which we know.

Take the insect called the mountain pine beetle, for example, the larvae of which drills into the wood of live trees in North America and eats them. The abundance of these insects is kept under control by cold winters which kill them. But winters have started getting warmer in recent years, most likely due to global warming, which we will discuss later on. So, the beetles are more numerous and eat into wood so much that the trees are weakened or die, which makes them burn more easily. This tells us that the danger of a blaze breaking out in a forest can lurk in something least expected to cause such danger.

North Americans thus live in great danger of wildfires spreading and causing massive damage. Anybody caught in the path of a fire is likely to get killed or severely injured. While this was not common with the 2017 fires because of America’s propensity for timely evacuation, people far away from massive wildfires got hurt because the amount of smoke produced by the fires in June-September 2017 ruined air quality across wide areas. Wildfire smoke is very dangerous to human health and can get more dangerous when fires spread into human habitats, as various synthetic materials we use can burn and cause toxic fumes. When the air over regions far and wide becomes dangerous to breathe, it is a serious crisis.

MORE HURRICANES AND AN EARTHQUAKE

While a severe summer and fire season was occurring in the west, in the east the hurricane season was proving to be one of the worst in recorded Atlantic history. Before it struck Florida, Irma found itself to be not alone. While the massive storm was tearing through the Caribbean, two other hurricanes formed in the same region, Katia and Jose, the first time in seven years that three hurricanes existed in the Atlantic at the same time. Katia formed in the Gulf of Mexico on 6 September and by the time it approached Mexico, it was fortunately a weak category 1 storm, so Mexico was not badly affected.

But two things were to become apparent, one that Mother Nature was in a very fiery mood in this section of the world and the other that she was not going to allow this nation to get off so lightly. On September 7 late at night, the Pacific Coast of Mexico, on the opposite side of the country from where Katia was to make landfall, was struck by a powerful magnitude 8.1 earthquake. The earthquake, striking near the border with Guatemala, killed nearly a hundred people in Mexico. Minor damage happened as far away as Mexico City. 1.8 million people were left without power.

It was the biggest earthquake to hit Mexico in a hundred years and it shook a wide portion of the world, being felt as far away as Asia. Most fortunately, in terms of a disaster, it was very minor, due to the fact that it occurred some distance away from land. However, earthquakes that occur in the ocean, close to shore, tend to be extremely disastrous in another way. The same geological event that creates them creates tsunamis. Tsunamis are destructive in a way that earthquakes are not. Quakes simply cause damage to structures, endangering people who are nearby. But a tsunami wave tearing through an area destroys everything in its path and people caught in it are in severe danger. Even though tsunamis affect a much smaller area (coastline) than earthquakes can, coastlines everywhere in the world tend to be heavily populated. An 8.1 earthquake could very well create a major tsunami disaster. Thus, after it struck offshore Mexico, a tsunami warning was issued for areas as far away as Ecuador. However, only a small tsunami was created that had a maximum height of nearly six feet.

The hurricanes lately affecting the region so much are the result of processes in the Earth’s atmosphere, interacting with the ocean and with the Sun’s energy. But earthquakes are the result of what is going on inside the planet Earth itself, an environment that also is dynamic and ever-changing. Earthquakes are a tremendous and distressingly common geophysical event and they come about because the Earth’s crust, the solid, cool surface of the planet that we stand on, is divided into several slabs called tectonic plates and underneath the crust is the Earth’s mantle, which is made of rock that, due to heat and pressure, can flow slowly as if it was a liquid. Heat from deep inside the Earth makes the mantle churn and move, because the upper parts of the mantle are cooler and denser than below and so sink down. This makes the plates, which are stuck to the mantle, also move. As they scrape against each other at their boundaries, called fault lines, the edges of plates often get stuck and release themselves in sudden jolts now and then, making the crust, which on a large scale is flexible like rubber, vibrate, thus producing the earthquakes that can be disastrous for human societies, usually by damaging and destroying infrastructure. The Mexican earthquake occurred at a rift in the Earth’s crust where the Cocos plate is slowly sliding, (subducting), under the North American Plate. This fault line is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a series of faultlines around the entire Pacific Ocean where earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis are commonly generated.

Earthquakes by themselves usually do not pose a threat to people, apart from when they trigger other disasters like landslides and tsunamis. While earthquakes are a natural phenomenon, the disasters they cause are largely artificial. The most common way people are harmed is when buildings that they are inside collapse or disintegrate in some way. It may take no more than a minute to get out of a building to safety, but alas, earthquakes strike suddenly without warning and can do their work with extreme rapidity. There is also an unlimited variety of other infrastructural damage from earthquakes that can be hazardous, such as dams collapsing or gas leaking from damaged pipelines and exploding. Earthquakes are incredibly destructive and are one of the prime examples of how much the rocky planet we are on can unleash tremendously powerful forces during the rare occasions it wakes up.

We are all familiar with the weather and with what it can do. The atmosphere is, after all, the most dynamic part of the planet. The layer of gas above our heads is constantly and highly active and frequently produces natural disasters and events that ruin people’s day. But the Earth beneath our feet is not static either, though it may seem so. It is also ever changing. As a result, natural disasters that come from the Earth also happen. They tend to be much rarer than weather events, since the atmosphere is much more active than the ground beneath our feet, but when they do occur, they tend to be much more severe. After all, the Earth itself is much bigger and more imposing than the atmosphere. We are basically living on a slumbering giant.

But going back to the air and what it can do, while Mexicans were suffering from the aftermath of the earthquake, Hurricane Katia made landfall on Mexico’s Gulf coast as a weak category 1 storm on September 8. It killed two people and the damage it wreaked was minor, though 77,000 people were left without power. In conjunction with the earthquake, however, it was a significant blow to the nation. In particular, there were fears that Katia would impede the delivery of aid to the earthquake-struck areas. Katia’s remnants moved over Mexico and into the Pacific on September 9, where they lingered for several days as a tropical depression before turning into a tropical storm, Otis, on September 16, which unexpectedly grew into a Category 3 hurricane within two days. If Otis went back and struck Mexico, it would have meant severe trouble for the earthquake-ravaged areas. The biggest effects would be that people would have less shelter to take cover in and that the rains and winds would hamper earthquake relief efforts. Fortunately, Otis was moving west and quickly started weakening after it reached its peak. It dissipated on September 19.

Back to the ocean east of Mexico, Hurricane Jose followed closely on Irma’s heels. It formed out in the open Atlantic on September 6 from a tropical wave coming from Africa and headed towards the Caribbean islands, reaching maximum intensity as a Category 4 on September 8, the third major hurricane to form in the Atlantic in 2017 and a storm that was extremely dangerous for the region considering what it had already been through. There was great fear that it would ravage islands already laid waste to by Irma, causing evacuations of Irma survivors. It came close enough to cause some damage to some of these islands but then started to steer north. It proceeded to weaken, dissipating into a tropical depression, but turned into a hurricane again on September 10, heading up towards America’s east coast, moving very slowly. There were fears that it would make landfall in America. If it did so, it would be a severe blow to a nation already so hurricane-ravaged, with America’s most developed areas potentially being affected, but ten days later, being a Category 1 all this time, Jose was still hovering over the open Atlantic, bringing bad weather to the country’s coast but nothing more. It reached so far north on September 21 that it became a post-tropical cyclone. A very long-lasting hurricane, it dissipated on September 26 while still off America’s East Coast.

Large scale disaster was averted but individual hazards were produced. Thus, beaches had to be closed because it was dangerous to swim in the ocean, as strong currents and waves could wash people away. Surf waves and rip tides were created that were very strong. One American woman drowned. We need to distinguish between disasters bad things happening to individuals in normal situations. Disasters are basically a major event and affect a large number of people. It thus is an event of concern to society as a whole. We can say that if a boat sinks and eight people in it drown, it is not a disaster, just an incident, but if a ship sinks and five hundred people die, it is a disaster. Still, the dividing line is not clear. Exactly what is the number of deaths at which point an incident passes into a disaster? 20? 30? 47? Should the standard be measured by the news coverage received? But, as we have learned with human violence and natural disasters, how we classify tragedies, crises, and dangers does not in any way alter their reality.

YET MORE DISASTERS, NOT ONE BUT TWO

Hurricane Jose thankfully ended up being a much lesser danger than feared. But it soon turned out that the worst of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was yet to pass. On September 16, a tropical wave out in the Atlantic, near South America, was approaching the Caribbean when high temperatures, low wind shear, and abundant moisture caused it to turn into a tropical storm called Maria. The next day, Maria became a hurricane. Then, it underwent extremely high intensification, doubling its wind speed and going from a Category 1 to a Category 5 in just twenty-four hours. This was one of the highest rates of hurricane intensification ever recorded in the Atlantic.

So just days after suffering a massive disaster, islands in the northern Caribbean were now going to go through the same experience again. But at the same time this was happening, Mexico was to find itself in the same situation. On September 19, an earthquake struck central Mexico, its epicenter a short distance south of Mexico City. There being no plate boundaries in the area, this earthquake’s cause and nature is not clear but it is likely related to the same subduction zone at the Cocos-North American boundary. Some tectonic plates that subduct under another plate continue sliding under the other one, so that one plate is resting on top of another. This creates a sort of underground fault plane that extends for a wide area, where, from deep below, earthquakes can occur far from where the plate boundary meets the surface of the Earth. Such earthquakes can be unexpected.

In one of the world’s greatest coincidences, September 19 was the anniversary of the worst earthquake to strike Mexico in modern history, a magnitude 8 earthquake in 1985 which struck along the Cocos-North American fault line and killed thousands. The day is set aside for earthquake commemoration and features a national drill in the morning. Being an earthquake-prone country, Mexico has an earthquake warning system. An earthquake begins at the epicenter and takes seconds to spread dozens of miles. A large earthquake may take minutes to expand to its greatest extent. In Mexico, when an earthquake starts somewhere, other areas in the country nearby immediately are subjected to blaring sirens and automatic telecommunication alerts, which are likely to give people the seconds or minutes they need to make themselves safe, usually by running outside of buildings.

The earthquake that struck on that drill day in 2017 occurred two hours after the drill. As a result, as warnings of the earthquake were blasted off, many people thought they were an extension of the drill.  Indeed, drills can often be a danger in that way, as people who do not feel up to participating in drills may mistake real warnings for drills and so not take the appropriate action to save themselves. It is rather difficult to get everybody in an entire country to abide by drills every time. The problem can be solved by making drills different from real warnings and making sure everybody knows the difference.

It is quite impressive for a not so rich country like Mexico to have such a well-developed electronic warning system, while the great neighbor to its north has failed to produce one. Mobile phones, the new and the latest, are widely owned by much of the world’s population. They are abundant even in poor countries. This widespread networking can form the basis of efficient disaster warning dissemination to all those who need them.

Though this new earthquake in Mexico was much smaller than the one that struck less than two weeks earlier, the damage was much greater. 369 people died and more than 6,000 were injured. Mexico City was badly affected and contained most of the death toll. For days afterwards, there was a frantic effort to rescue people trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings. Mexico fortunately got help from around the world to respond to the earthquake.

On the day that Mexico was hit by the earthquake, hundreds of miles to the east, the massive storm Maria entered the Caribbean and made landfall in Dominica, the first Category 5 in known history to ever strike the island nation. It also became Dominica’s worst ever natural disaster, with nearly every building on the island damaged in some way. The nation was completely isolated from the outside world for days and was left devastated afterwards. Maria weakened when over Dominica but afterwards, making its way along the Caribbean island chain, it grew in strength again and reached top intensity with wind speeds of 175 miles per hour. It caused major damage to various islands but its only further destination for landfall was Puerto Rico, the large island that is a territory of the United States.

Hurricane Maria weakened to a Category 4 before making landfall on Puerto Rico on September 20. Puerto Rico was already reeling from Irma. The new storm was a massive blow. It was feared beforehand that all the debris that Irma created in the Caribbean would become extremely dangerous projectiles under the influence of Maria’s wind and water, which could lead to significant human casualties for the first time. While that did not happen very much, the devastation was severe. Among other effects, the entire power supply of the island was wiped out. So was the water supply for most of the population. Maria was the worst natural disaster ever for Puerto Rico, too.

Maria weakened significantly over Puerto Rico but re-intensified when it went back out onto the Atlantic, reaching top wind speeds of 125 miles per hour north of the island of Hispaniola, where it caused significant damage. Maria proceeded to approach the mainland United States, fluctuating in strength but overall weakening for the next few days. America started to feel its effects. But then, on September 25, Maria passed over the same area of ocean which Hurricane Jose treaded. Jose, as hurricanes typically do, made the surface of the ocean cooler by bringing up water from deep below and mixing it with the top. Faced with the colder water, Maria started to plummet in strength. At the same time, a trough coming from America pushed Maria out to the wide expanse of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, as a tropical storm now, Maria continued to maintain intensity for a long time while traveling north and east. It finally met its end on October 3 over Europe as an extra-tropical storm.

Intense devastation was left around the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico from Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Caribbean Islands were in ruins. Generally poor inhabitants had their lives turned upside down. The United States of America was economically dealt a severe blow while many of its areas faced a long recovery ahead. Puerto Rico was where the damage and suffering was most notable.

The last hurricane, Maria, which is confirmed to have caused 112 deaths, left behind great devastation in its aftermath. Most of the population of Dominica was without shelter, food, and clean drinking water. Agriculture was wiped out. The island’s main source of revenue, tourism, was obviously going to be absent for a long time. Reportedly, 90 percent of buildings in the US Virgin Islands were damaged. In Puerto Rico, widespread flooding continued for weeks after the hurricane and people suffered from various problems, especially lack of clean drinking water. The American government struggled to provide aid to Puerto Rico and its response has been widely condemned as sorely inadequate. The death toll rose constantly in the aftermath of Maria. The death toll in Puerto Rico from Maria is officially 64. However, it is believed that, in the months after the storm, as many as 1,000 deaths occurred which could be attributed to the conditions Irma and Maria created in Puerto Rico.

THE SEASON OF SEVERE WEATHER

After Maria, the only disastrous hurricane to occur in the Atlantic was Hurricane Nate. Nate started to form in the southern Caribbean on October 3 and turned into a hurricane within three days, moving north. The storm only affected Central America and not the Caribbean islands, which could have had devastating consequences due to the state they already were in. Though Nate was a weak hurricane, its effects were nevertheless severe, with severe flooding and mudslides being caused due to the fact that an intense rainy season had already saturated Central America’s soil. Nicaragua and Costa Rica were the worst affected nations. Nate soon moved north of the Yucatan Peninsula, entered the Gulf of Mexico, and made landfall in the US near the mouth of the Mississippi River, around the area that Harvey had struck. Some damage ensued and Nate rapidly weakened while moving overland. The hurricane ended on October 9 but its remnants continued on a long journey north across North America. The total death toll from Nate was 45. In keeping with the spirit of that hurricane season, Hurricane Nate holds the record for the fastest a hurricane is known to have ever moved in the Gulf of Mexico. The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season later ended at the end of November without much further ado, except that, in late October, Hurricane Ophelia became the easternmost Atlantic hurricane on record.

The season was extreme. It broke numerous records. The Atlantic hurricane season also broke a few records. It was the costliest ever season in terms of the damage it inflicted. It is the only known season to have ten hurricanes occur in a row in the satellite era. The season is the fifth-most active Atlantic hurricane season on record and the most intense since 2005. That intensity is measured by Accumulated Cyclone Energy, a term used to describe the overall scale of hurricanes, multiplying the strength of the hurricane by the amount of time it existed. After 2005, most hurricane seasons saw storms mostly being propelled out to the open Atlantic. This pattern ended in 2017, with many storms making landfall in the Americas. One can only wait to see what next year will bring. In the meantime, it is important for countries around the North Atlantic to be prepared.

Thus, the year 2017 saw an unusually severe and in many ways unusual Atlantic hurricane season, an unusually severe North American wildfire season, and unusually severe heat on the same continent. In fact, nowadays, the weather often is more severe than it was in the past. 2017 was merely where the trend was particularly pronounced. All of this is almost universally believed to be the result of manmade climate change, specifically global warming.

As human civilization develops at a breakneck speed, major impacts on the natural environment of the world are being evident and global warming is the biggest of these changes. It is the warming up of the atmosphere caused by mankind’s basic energy usage, which consists largely of burning carbon fuel, which produces carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. That means that it absorbs heat from infrared radiation. Rays from the Sun, when they hit the surface of the Earth, release heat in the form of infrared radiation that travel back out to space. But the more carbon dioxide is around, the more heat is absorbed by the air. Right now, the carbon stored in the Earth’s crust in the form of fossil fuels is being turned into carbon dioxide in huge amounts by people. We also let carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in other ways such as by cutting down trees. There are also other greenhouse gases, many of which are much more potent than carbon dioxide, which we are filling the atmosphere with by various activities.

Global warming will bring a wide variety of changes to the world’s climate. An increase in the frequency or intensity of hurricanes is likely to be among them. Hurricanes require heat to exist, which is why they occur in the tropics. The warmer the ocean is, the more likely they are to form and the more powerful they can get. Some recent research suggests global warming will make hurricanes more severe but less numerous. However, 2017 saw them being both more severe and more numerous than usual. Heat waves are, of course, also likely to become a bigger hazard with global warming. So are drought and wildfires. A hotter climate means more evaporation, which means that the ground can dry up more. However, this can often be compensated for by more water evaporating from the oceans and becoming precipitation. Thus exactly what global warming will bring for the future to each part of the world is not clear. However, we should take note of, and do something about, what is already happening and not just sit around and simply be available for more to happen to us.

Global warming is still not proven beyond a doubt. But there is strong evidence for it in the fact that as  the years have gone by, warm years have become more frequent, with year after year breaking temperature records, and the weather has been behaving in a more severe manner. In our present era, weather-related hazards have become greater while purely geological hazards have stayed the same as they always have. This is the case for the disasters that have been recounted in this article, as the heat waves and wildfires in North America and the hurricanes in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico were historic but the earthquakes in Mexico were not. Hurricane Irma is the strongest hurricane ever known in the open Atlantic but the September 7 earthquake was merely the largest ‘Mexican’ quake in a century.

The harm that global warming can cause is only part of how the changes we are inducing in the environment are detrimental to us. It will cause humanity and civilization to suffer on a regular basis and it will make us more vulnerable to natural hazards in a variety of ways. For example, in addition to climate change causing hurricanes to be so powerful, the removal of mangrove forests, coastal marshes, coral reefs, and sand dunes makes coastal communities more vulnerable to the effects of a cyclone’s storm surge. This is a common situation in the Caribbean. For example, Florida would have been less vulnerable to Irma if the coral reefs lining off its shores had not declined.

Going beyond global warming, scientists have discerned many direct causes of 2017’s extreme hurricane season. 2017 has been measured as the second-warmest year on record. 2016 was warmer, but crucially, that year came along with an El Nino, a weather condition in which the eastern Pacific becomes warmer. El Nino events tend to warm up the entire world but also make Atlantic hurricanes less likely. It is because the warm Pacific air of an El Nino travels to the Atlantic and creates high rates of wind shear, which tear a hurricane apart before it can form, over that ocean. The El Nino duly did both, contributing to 2016’s record warmth but also inhibiting hurricane activity in the Atlantic. The next year, on the other hand, was entirely without an El Nino and in fact saw conditions closer to a La Nina, a reverse weather condition that created more favorable wind conditions in the Atlantic for hurricanes. And yet, 2017 still managed to be the hottest ever year besides its immediate predecessor, with temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean being extremely high. In addition, dry air blowing from the Sahara tends to make it difficult for hurricanes to form in the Atlantic but the amount of wind coming west from the giant desert was less than usual in 2017. Thus was created, unusually, the perfect recipe for Atlantic hurricanes.

AFTERMATH & RECOVERY

Thus by late September came the conclusion of a long period of disaster after disaster. One of those set of disasters, the North American wildfires, continued to go on for months, reaching their climax in December with the record-breaking Thomas Fire that ravaged California. Afterwards, in January of 2018, the fire season died down but gave way to widespread mudslides across California, which were caused by the destruction of vegetation due to wildfires. As for the earthquakes in Mexico and the hurricanes in the Gulf and the Caribbean, the effects are long lasting.

A disaster can have a wide variety of effects and typically, the more serious effects are the first to pass. When a disaster itself is over, the recovery ensues, the making of everything ‘back to normal’ for the victims. For the massive disasters of August and September, recovery has been often a slow process and in some cases, the crisis itself was prolonged.

Recovery from the Mexico earthquakes was slow. Aid from the federal government did not reach some areas until early October. After more than a month, many earthquake victims did not have their shelter restored. In the Caribbean, the aftermath of Irma and Maria was severe. It has even been said that the hurricanes permanently changed the environments of some of the islands. Certainly, the societies inhabiting them have been suffering since the disasters, especially since most of them have a low socioeconomic status. But even the United States, the most prosperous country in the world, has found recovery to be an excruciatingly slow process. Some parts of Houston have still not gotten back to normal, more than six months after the hurricane. Rebuilding is expected to continue for a long time. Many hurricane victims are still homeless in Florida.

These are the highly developed states of America. Offshore, America’s territorial possessions in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, have fared much worse. In the Virgin Islands, the main problem has been lack of electricity and cellular connectivity. Even after three months, half the population did not have their power restored and a quarter had no cell service. The situation in Puerto Rico can be said to be a very long disaster, lasting for several months.

Even before the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season began the electricity grid and water utilities in Puerto Rico were both of a generally poor nature. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority was understaffed and in heavy debt, resulting in bankruptcy being declared on July 2, 2017. Electrical facilities across the island tended to be old- the average power plant was 44 years of age- making them damage-prone. Drinking water in Puerto Rico was prone to being unsafe. The situation was so severe that seventy percent of Puerto Ricans used water that did not comply with the safety standards of the federal 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. These preexisting conditions greatly exacerbated the impact of Hurricane Maria.

Indeed, when it comes to assessing the impact of natural disasters, it is not just the extent and characteristics of the natural event itself, or the size of the population in the affected area, that plays a part but also the general conditions of the human society that is struck. In most natural disasters, societal circumstances are such that the disaster becomes more severe than it could have been. This is known as Social Vulnerability.’ It must always be factored into hazard assessment. Usually, the more ‘poorly developed’ (from disaster perspective) a society is, the more vulnerable it is. Hence, certain forms of development may also make things worse in many ways. Across the world, there is a very wide variety of human factors that make a natural disaster worse.

In the most prosperous, well-developed, and powerful nation in the world, one would expect social vulnerability to be very low. It should be noted, however, that America’s very extravagant development can boost vulnerability to natural events in many ways. For example, many of its cities have been built freely in all kinds of natural environments without regard to the possible consequences with reference to natural disasters and populations have been booming there.

But as for what the country has suffered in the Caribbean, it must be noted that Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are not among the ‘United States’ that make up America. Instead, they are controlled by America. They are unincorporated territory of the United States of America, just like Guam and American Samoa in the Pacific. The people living there are US citizens but they cannot vote in federal elections unless they reside in the States. It is something that appears to be akin to colonial control. This could be the reason behind their social vulnerability.

America, has in fact, been treating its territories as something to be used. The country’s “colonial empire” may be very tiny, but that it has any land to lord over is something of great benefit, especially to the military. The Pentagon likes to have military bases, but bases that are part of other countries or of the proper United States itself are subject to great restrictions on what can be done there, such as dumping hazardous waste (which military facilities tend to produce an enormous amount of). For example, Isla de Vieques, which lies off of the main island of Puerto Rico, was for fifty years, despite being inhabited, used as a free practice ground for the US Navy, which owned most of it until leaving in 2003 (due to protests). They bombed it heavily and sprayed Agent Orange on its forests. The island remains contaminated with depleted uranium and toxic heavy metals. Due to that, people on Vieques face a 26 percent higher rate of cancer than the rest of Puerto Rico. It seems that for one part of Puerto Rico, the way the authorities have been running things has itself been a long disaster of a sort. Therefore, it is no surprise that such places have shown such a low capacity to deal with the disasters nature throws their way.

We live in a world pretty much free of imperialist rule. But even then, many countries have not done the best they could to keep their citizens safe and resilient. Also, as in Puerto Rico’s case, part of a country may be neglected or exploited by the rest of the country. Normal problems are then only exacerbated when a disaster strikes.

Such a disaster can be the harbinger of change, as the nation is prompted to do something and improve the affected society. A disaster can also create social discontent or even unrest. Signs of this have already appeared in Puerto Rico. A disaster in such circumstances can be the straw, or rather the brick, that breaks the camel’s back and makes the people clamor for change or turn against those ruling over them. It can even result in the breaking up of nations. Indeed, it has.

When it comes to dealing with hazards and disasters, we must bear in mind that problems that are going on normally make a disaster worse and that to properly assess the threats that nature poses to us, we must look at ourselves as much as nature and its processes.

The vicious hurricane season of 2017 has been so impactful that it will leave a mark on history in many ways. One of those ways may be the way America treats Puerto Rico, the relationship between the two, and the status of the territory. The crisis in Puerto Rico is still there for us to deal with, to help out, and will likely be the longest-lasting effect of the month-long string of natural disasters that ravaged North America last year.

ELSEWHERE ON EARTH

But it was not just on that continent that severe disasters were occurring at that time. Disasters in North America tend to get a lot of attention because of the influence, wealth, and power of the people of that continent. But North America is in no way particularly prone to disasters among the continents of the world. Instead, it is Asia, particularly South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia, where natural disasters have the biggest impact and where people are the most vulnerable.

Asia is the world’s biggest continent and its southern and eastern parts are the world’s most densely populated areas. Half of the population of the world lives there. Most of these people live in societies that are underdeveloped or poorly developed, creating high social vulnerability for these huge numbers of people. The natural environment people live in is often hugely volatile and dynamic. Some of the world’s biggest earthquake, volcano, cyclone, flooding, drought, tsunami, landslide, tornado, and wildfire events occur there. The area from Pakistan to Java to Japan is thus the world’s disaster hotspot.

At the time that the disasters in North America were occurring in August and September, a large-scale natural disaster in Asia had been raging in the form of a wave of monsoon flooding across South Asia. While the North Atlantic was having such a severe hurricane season, the summer monsoon season in South Asia, in which air currents sharply turn from the Indian Ocean north towards land, bringing heavy rainfall to areas south of the Himalayas and nearby mountain ranges, was similarly haywire. From June to September, tens of millions of people across Bangladesh, Nepal, and India suffered from flooding and 1,500 people were killed. Some of the heavy rainfall extended to our country, Pakistan, making us suffer from severe weather conditions since late June and reaching its peak with severe urban flooding in Karachi at the end of August which killed 40 people. The heavy monsoon rains continued until the end of September, whereas the summer monsoon usually ends days earlier.

The spate of floods in South Asia is way deadlier than any of the hurricanes that struck North America at the same time. Yet, in the international outreach of the media, it got much less attention. That has rather forced us to examine the question of what the world’s priorities are and whether we consider some lives valuable than others. It seems to be that way that the more economic value a nation has, the more we are concerned about the wellbeing of its people. Of course, the world always pays more attention to what happens in a country the more prominent that country is. For example, a US presidential election is more talked about the world over than an election in Nepal or Rwanda. That may be because events in important countries like US elections have more of an impact on the rest of the world than events in countries like Rwanda. For disasters, however, the same should not be the case as much. Hurricane Irma striking the US is less a worldwide concern than a new president being elected there. The world should have a media that prioritizes human lives more, so that people dying or suffering are equally reported upon on the global scale regardless of how important they are.

Like the Atlantic hurricanes, 2017’s South Asian monsoon rainfall evidently was influenced by climate change. It is expected that the effects of a changing monsoon climate on South Asia’s one billion people, who are likely to suffer from both floods and droughts more, will be one of global warming’s most severe impacts on humanity. The change has been plainly evident in recent years as monsoon rainfall patterns have become different in many ways. One country in the region that has known particularly big changes is Pakistan. In the old days, flooding usually struck every few years. But in 2010, a massive deluge broke out in July and August, sending one-fifth of the country underwater. The next year, another massive flood was generated from rainfall over Sindh, a province that rarely sees rainfall. Then another big flood event occurred the next year and in all the years since, the summer monsoon has brought Pakistan more minor flooding events, with 2017 being the mildest year for the nation. That may indicate that we are leaving this period of heightened flood activity, but we cannot be too sure.

2017 was not a mild monsoon flood season for our neighbors to the east, India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. South Asia has seen many deadlier monsoon seasonal flooding in recent years, including the 2010 Pakistan flooding which killed 2,000, but 2017 ranks with them as a particularly severe flood season. Many of the areas affected rarely saw conditions this severe before. One strange fact about the 2017 flooding is that the total yield of summer monsoon rainfall in the region was actually 3 percent lower than average. Instead, severe flooding occurred because the rain fell down in faster bursts than normal. Thus, rainfall did not occur steadily throughout the season but in short periods. This is only part of a pattern meteorologists note had been developing in South Asia, with, compared to earlier years, less monsoon rainfall coming to South Asia and more of it turning into floodwaters.

This sort of situation can make the region vulnerable to both drought and flooding occurring in the same season in the same places. Outside of the short spells of extreme rainfall, the land can be gripped by dry spells and when the rain spells occur, the rain comes down so rapidly that enough of it is not absorbed into the soil and instead mostly runs off, so that afterwards, the land can dry up again easily. Both drought and flooding harm agriculture and with the food supply of the billion people of South Asia being controlled largely by the monsoon, the future of food security for the region is ominous.

The 2017 floods were an example, like many before it, of how we South Asians are always unprepared to cope with major flood events, particularly unusually severe ones which are likely influenced by climate change. River infrastructure in India was planned in such a manner that it did little to protect against the floods, exhibiting such traits as lack of drainage systems. Critics have pointed out that South Asians are focused too much on giving aid, or relief, during flooding and not enough on preparations beforehand, such as warning and flood control infrastructure. Even aid giving was not in top shape in 2017’s flooding as India’s authorities poorly identified which areas were suffering and how much, hampering the relief coordination. In their defense, India’s officials say that the floods were something that they simply were not used to. The real disaster, it seems, is climate change and South Asia, like the rest of the world, better adapt. It will be an onerous task given that the region is not very wealthy.

LESSONS FOR PAKISTAN

It is very fortunate that our nation, Pakistan, has barely suffered at all among all the nations suffering from natural disasters around the globe in 2017. It largely escaped nature’s wrath at the time, with a minor urban flood in Karachi being perhaps the only incident counting as a disaster. But it won’t always be so. 2017 is a year that yields for Pakistan the benefit of valuable lessons learned from the calamities that struck other nations. We need to learn the lessons from last year’s spate of disasters so that we can be better prepared for these same kinds of disasters when they strike our nation, which could happen at any time.

The one disaster we did suffer, the Karachi flooding, can teach us about the vulnerability of Karachi, a city that is much like Houston only far poorer, to rainfall and flooding events. Karachi, where twenty million people are crammed into a small space in poorly developed and poorly organized conditions, is an area of extreme social vulnerability and late August’s flooding is only a foretaste of the massive disasters that could possibly strike Karachi. We need to look at the flooding that occurred in our fellow South Asian countries to better understand the monsoon risks and hazards that are looming over us. And we can also learn from the disasters that occurred in North America. The countries of South America are similar to Pakistan in some ways given the economic prosperity and level of development and so we can learn the effects that disasters have on such countries and how the latter deal with them. Meanwhile, since the United States of America is such an innovative and prosperous nation, its capacity for managing and being resilient in the face of disasters can provide everybody lessons in how to do so. America’s failings can also teach us. We better start managing our development with disaster risk reduction in mind so we may be better able to handle the calamities of the future.

Shahzeb Khan is a director at PPLDM. He lives and works in Islamabad, Pakistan. His special interest is ‘climate change and its plausible impacts’  and DRR, (disaster risk reduction).  

Need to Redefine Disaster Management in Pakistan

Pakistan, a country in the west of Asia, is the world’s sixth most populous nation, with 180 million people. It is divided into four provinces, Punjab, Sindh, Khyber-Paktunkwha (KPK), and Balochistan, and four territories, Islamabad Capital Territory, Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Kashmir, and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). We can say that Punjab, Sindh, Islamabad, Azad Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan are in South Asia and Khyber-Paktunkwha, Balochistan, and FATA are in West Asia. Pakistan is a developing country but it has a strong military and a promising economy. The country has recently turned 70 years old on August 14, 2017. It has the honor of being the very first country to gain independence in the wave of decolonization after World War 2 that ended imperialism.

In addition to the ordinary issues affecting the nation, we face the risk of numerous kinds of disasters. The disasters that have been afflicting Pakistan are severe and numerous and the risks Pakistan faces are high.

Pakistan is in fact one of the world’s most disaster- vulnerable countries. Large scale natural disasters happen frequently and man-made disasters are not rare either, though they usually are not on a large scale because of Pakistan’s poorly developed infrastructure. The same societal conditions also play a big factor in the severity of natural disasters. Pakistan’s biggest threats are earthquakes, floods, droughts, famines, epidemics, and cyclones. Other significant hazards are tsunamis, wildfires, urban fires, nuclear plant meltdowns, and landslides. Disasters that occasionally occur, or are likely to occur in Pakistan and harm a significant number of people include heat waves, avalanches, blizzards, dust storms, windstorms, and various kinds of industrial accidents.

Here we must make clear what the definitions of “hazard” and “disaster” are. The word “disaster” has a broad meaning, but here, it means an event in which bad things happen to a large group of people. A hazard is the probability that a certain kind of disaster will happen. It is a situation in which a disaster can possibly happen, in which people are at risk.

An overview of the hazard assessment in Pakistan makes it clear how prone to disasters the nation is and how nearly all Pakistanis live under great risk. Across the western side of Pakistan runs the Chaman Fault, which is of high seismic activity. It begins at the coast of Sindh and turns west and then north through Balochistan and Khyber-Paktunkwha and meets with a very complex system of faults in the north of Pakistan. Across the east side of Pakistan runs the Indus River, which begins in Azad Kashmir and runs through the middle of Punjab, where it connects with a network of large rivers that crisscrosses the province, and Sindh, where it enters the ocean. The Indus River regularly overflows and is prone to seeing massive floods. Thus, most of Pakistan is vulnerable to the two largest natural hazards, earthquakes and floods. The tectonic faults of Pakistan run mostly through areas that are sparsely populated but also isolated, so that the people who are affected by earthquakes, however few in number, suffer badly as it is difficult to get help to them. The rivers run through the most densely inhabited areas of Pakistan so that large proportions of the population of Pakistan tend to be affected by flooding. Flooding tends to make movement over the ground (and the air as well if there is bad weather above the flood zone) impossible, so it is also difficult to get help to flood victims.

Another dichotomy in Pakistan is that the nation is vulnerable to either flooding or drought. Pakistan’s hydrological situation is unusual. The entire country is very arid. Sufficient rainfall to sustain human life comes only during the three months of the summer monsoon (July to September) and also in lesser extent during Winter Disturbances. Only the mountainous areas of Pakistan are kept moist all the time as their altitude allows them to absorb the maximum amount of moisture from the sky. The only other source of water for the nation is the rivers that flow through Pakistan’s territory, an uneven water supply that has only been partially mitigated through millennia of irrigation construction. So Pakistan receives a lot of water at some times and little water at other times and some parts of it have a lot of water and other parts little water. This makes both flooding and drought huge and ever-present hazards. Among other things, this makes famine a major hazard as both drought and flooding tend to cause famine. Due to the precarious base of Pakistan’s agriculture, the food security of the nation remains low.

The coast of Pakistan has all the hazards that come with living near the ocean. There is a major subduction fault, the Makran Trench, which is adjacent to the coast. It is in constant danger of rupturing, which could cause a major tsunami, which would severely affect the immediate coastal areas, and an earthquake, which could cause damage further inland. The tsunami danger is compounded by the fact that the seabed off the coast of Pakistan is covered in great depths of loose sediment which could easily slide. They are capable of causing huge tsunamis. Moving from the terrain under the ocean to the sky above, the Arabian Sea has a moderate propensity for cyclone formation. Though cyclones there tend not to be large, the Sea’s funnel shape makes storm surges bigger when they reach Pakistan.

The vast mountainous regions across Pakistan, especially the northern part of the country covered by the massive Hindu Kush-Karakorum-Himalayan mountain ranges, are a world-class disaster hotspot. The mountains, formed by the high-force collision of two tectonic plates, are underlain by a vast system of seismically extremely active fault lines. The monsoon weather systems that come from the east and the disturbances that come from the west tend to collide with the mountains. When they do so, most of their moisture falls down as rain all at once, creating severe risk for floods which have increased in recent years as the monsoon fronts have started heading towards the mountains more. The floods which occur in mountainous areas are extremely destructive as water moves at great speeds. Along with this comes various gravity related hazards common to mountains. Landslides, rockslides, mudslides, and avalanches happen frequently. Another danger is flooding caused by a slide damming a river. The biggest hazard may be outburst floods caused by the collapse of natural dams, especially glaciers. All these hazards are greatly enabled by the high seismic and hydrological activity. Getting aid to people affected by disasters in the mountainous areas is often not easy.

All these dangers are major problems confronting Pakistan. It is vitally important the nation deals with them. However, coping is something Pakistan is not very good at doing yet. Protecting people from disasters is a broad field known as disaster risk management. The capacity for disaster management in Pakistan is poorly developed, both in lessening the vulnerability of people to hazards and in dealing with disasters that occur. Because of this, the people of Pakistan have suffered badly from disasters. We are not dealing with our risk factor correctly. This could be due to absence of expertise, corruption and ill management of resources.

Pakistan must consider hazards and disasters as among its biggest issues and disaster risk management should be among the nation’s top priorities. In fact, it should be the top priority. Once Pakistan and its people have gained the capability of protecting themselves from and mitigating disasters, there will be a huge improvement in the wellbeing of Pakistanis. The pathway to sustainable empowerment of the nation-state lies here.

 

Changing Monsoon Pattern and Flood Preparation in Pakistan

The following article was submitted for publication on November 13, 2017 to Herald Pakistan. It was part of PPLDM’s effort to sensitize the government of Pakistan. Herald declined the piece with the message that it would have published it if it was submitted in September. Fortunately, the government of Pakistan was moved. It held a seminar on January 12, 2018, (within two months of PPLDM’s effort), to address the matter of changing pattern of monsoon in 2017.

People led disaster management seems to work!

The following piece is authored by Shahzeb Khan, co-founder and director at PPLDM. Khan is an avid advocate for climate change policy. Shahzeb Khan is also an environment activist. He is the author of the upcoming book titled ‘Pakistan’s Multi-Hazard Risk Analysis.’ The book is aimed at sensitizing Pakistan’s people to the natural disaster risks they face and motivating them to think about disaster management innovatively.

Flooding is a frequent occurrence and a major hazard in Pakistan. Lately, the hazard has become much greater. Pakistan was used to a sort of regularity in floods caused by summer monsoon, whereby floods occurred once every few years and were never very big. Eight years ago, a new phase in Pakistan’s monsoon climate set in. It is a tremendous onset, rapid and without any precedent.

In July 2010, monsoon rains gained in strength rapidly through the month. They soon became much heavier than normal, until, at the end of July, they became the heaviest rainfall on record in Pakistan. The downpour, which occurred mostly in Pakistan’s mountainous northwest, caused massive flash floods that devastated the region.  The floods moved down the mountains towards the Indus River at the same time the heavy rainfall began over Punjab as well. By August, half a million people were displaced. The rainfall grew heavier as the month progressed while the entire Indus swelled and flooded vast areas of Pakistan until, in late August, one-fifth of the country was flooded. By late September, floodwaters began to recede, a process that was completed not before March 2011. 20 million people were affected by this massive disaster. The official death toll (always conservative) is 1,800.

This flood was the biggest ever in Pakistan’s recorded history. The disaster was truly unprecedented in many ways. Many people suggested it was the result of climate change. But the more pressing question at the time was whether it was a one-time aberration or the start of a change in Pakistan’s monsoon.

The answer began to painfully unravel itself the next year, in 2011. At first, monsoon rainfall was lower than normal, but it started to be higher in mid-August and quickly led to flooding. This time, rainfall was concentrated in the south of Pakistan, impacting mostly Sindh. By September, the flooding increased until it reached an enormous extent, not as big as last year’s but still a giant among floods in Pakistan. Reportedly, more than nine million people were affected and around 520 were killed.

The next year, the monsoon was calm until the beginning of September, when a monsoon front entered the country between the north and south. It rained throughout September, causing severe floods, that affected northern Sindh, southern Punjab, and eastern Balochistan. Around 4.8 million people were affected by the 2012 floods and 571 were killed. Floods in Sindh did not recede until March 2013.

That year, a spell of flooding began at the end of July and lasted till the middle of August, affecting wide areas of Pakistan, especially Punjab and Sindh. It is estimated that 1.5 million were affected and 234 people died in the floods of 2013.

In September 2014, severe rainfall in the north of the Indian Subcontinent caused massive flooding in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, as well as Jammu and Kashmir. Floodwaters moved through the rivers of Indian Punjab and entered into Pakistani Punjab, causing severe flooding in the northern part of the Indus River System. The floods lasted until September 26. 376 people died in Pakistan and more than two and a half million were affected.

In July and August 2015, floods occurred which were not as severe as preceding years but were almost as widespread as the 2010 deluge, affecting northern Sindh, western Punjab, eastern Balochistan, and most of Khyber-Paktunkwha, Gilgit-Baltistan, and Azad Kashmir. Chitral was the worst affected area. Across Pakistan, more than one and a half million people were affected and more than two hundred died.

In 2016, for the first time in six years, Pakistan was spared severe flooding. The country still did not escape tragedy, though. According to authorities, 153 people were killed in July and August in small flash floods in various places from Sindh to northern areas. Chitral, seeing direct rainfall, was once again badly affected.

So for seven years, Pakistan saw floods every monsoon season, most of them being severe calamities. The length of consecutive monsoon flooding, along with its extent, is truly unprecedented and it is likely that this era of yearly flooding has not ended.

Now that the 2017 summer monsoon season has passed by, let us look at what has transpired this rainy season in terms of flooding. Monsoon rainfall has been comparatively mild. But it has by no means been benevolent.

When 2017 summer monsoon started, the urgent question of what was going to happen was paid some attention to by the authorities. Major floods were not expected.  Summer monsoon began at the end of June with heavy rainfall all over the country, especially in Sindh. The rainfall quickly became debilitating in many areas and the casualty figures started to rise. Many, however, did not die in flooding but only in rain-related incidents like electrocution and building collapse. Regardless, flash floods also broke out in many places, although the nation was spared riverine flooding, except for low flood levels in several rivers such as the Chenab and the Jhelum. The rainfall was severe. By 4th July, NDMA reported a death toll of 43. Spates of heavy rainfall and associated flash flooding continued throughout the next two months, occurring far and wide across the nation in all provinces and territories. The death toll continued to rise.

Significant flooding occurred at the end of August 2017. Heavy rainfall in Sindh on the 30th and 31th of August caused severe flooding in Karachi that inundated most of the city. In those two days, as much rain fell on Karachi as usually fell in a month. It is estimated that forty people were killed, mostly due to drowning and electrocution. This was an urban flood caused by the city’s paving and the clogging of drains by trash.

The monsoon rainfall continued throughout September, though no further significant floods occurred. By early September, the NDMA declared that 157 people in Pakistan died from rainfall since the summer monsoon began. Not all of the deaths were from flooding, though. The summer monsoon stayed longer than it usually does, withdrawing from Pakistan only by October. It is now a month since then. Looking back, 2017 can be considered to be the eighth consecutive year that Pakistan has seen a severe monsoon season. It is clear that Pakistan’s summer monsoon climate is not the same as it used to be.

Looking forward, we need to prepare for the summer monsoon of 2018. This year’s summer monsoon flooding is the mildest we have seen in the eight-year period, a period in which the summer monsoons have been getting progressively less severe, except in 2014. However, if there is another lesson that we should learn from the past eight years, it is that nothing is certain. We now live in a climate that is different from what existed before 2010 and there is every reason to expect that we are not going back. In fact, the monsoon climate is different in a wide variety of ways. Since 2010, the monsoons have been behaving differently than they did before 2010 in many ways.

In the past, Pakistan was normally a dry country and India and Bangladesh were the primary destination for monsoon rainfall. Most of the rain that fell in Pakistan fell over the Punjab Basin, which easily absorbed water, suppressing flooding. But in recent times, scientists noticed that rainfall patterns were slowly shifting northwest towards the mountains of Pakistan.

In 2010, this migration took a great leap forward, with much of the massive amounts of water entering Pakistan pouring over the mountainous areas where they produced severe flash flooding that quickly traveled down the steep terrain into the Indus, causing it to swell. The monsoon currents went off their usual course so much that they reached areas they had never reached before. Thus, flooding occurred in some regions that never saw monsoon rainfall before, such as Gilgit-Baltistan, northern reaches of Khyber-Paktunkwha, and FATA. This was truly a monumental climatic revolution.

It was not repeated next year. Instead, in 2011, monsoon rainfall primarily occurred in the south of Pakistan. This was also unusual. Monsoon rains usually fall in the northern half of the country and only rarely does much of it fall over Sindh and Balochistan. Severe flooding caused by such rains certainly is rare. But a year after monsoon rains went far off their usual course in 2010, they did so again and in a completely different direction.

And they have continued to go where they usually did not go before. Rain fell around the center of the country in 2012 and in 2013, the latter year seeing rain reaching down to southern Sindh as well. In 2014, severe rainfall occurred in Kashmir once again, north of where heavy rain usually falls, and also affected Gilgit-Baltistan. In both 2015 and 2016, Chitral, one of those areas which never saw monsoon rains before 2010, again saw severe rains and suffered floods. And in 2017, much of the heavy rains in Pakistan have been falling over Sindh, which means that monsoon rainfall in the south is now officially common. These recent events demonstrate that even if monsoon rains are not as severe as they were from 2010 to 2014, the monsoon season is still not what it once was.

And perhaps it will never be. Most people believe that this change in the monsoon is the result of climate change, namely global warming (the warming of the atmosphere caused by our greenhouse gas emissions). Heavier rainfall is an obvious result of this, because warmer air can hold more moisture. But a warming world can also change the weather in many other ways such as by altering air movement. Many scientists believe that global warming will make the monsoon more erratic causing more floods and more droughts. It seems that global warming might also be responsible for the shifting of monsoon rains in Pakistan towards the northwest. Global warming seems to have had a sudden impact on Pakistan’s monsoon in 2010. What we are facing now may just be the harbinger of the future.

We need to deal with near future right now. Finding out what the future holds in store, trying to predict what the monsoons of the years ahead could bring, is important because preparation for floods is important. The best way to do this is to find out what is behind the floods of the last eight years. The core causes of the radical shifts in the monsoon in that time period must be understood. There has to be some reason why the monsoon started to change radically in 2010. Global warming cannot be the only cause, because the world did not suddenly warm up a great deal in the year before the floods of that season started. Scientists have devised many explanations for the individual flood years but it is still a mystery why the monsoon has changed, a mystery we are still far from unraveling. We need to embark on a quest to find this out and understand what is happening to the monsoon, in order for us to know what we need to face in the future.

Pakistan now has a very important task to engage in and that is to prepare for the summer monsoon of 2018. We do not know what the monsoon clouds will bring next year. Perhaps they will be more ferocious than 2010 and bring unprecedented floods once again. Perhaps they will be milder than the rains of this year and no flooding will occur. But we need to do all we can to ready ourselves for any eventuality. A major reason behind the devastating effects of the recent floods in Pakistan is our inadequate preparation and ability to respond. This must change. We need to do all we can to get an idea of what the monsoon season will bring. Weather forecasting is poor in Pakistan. We take little help from the outside world. We should turn more to weather forecasters around the world for flood prediction, such as Peter Webster at Georgia Tech, whose meteorological team forecasted the 2012 and 2013 floods but failed to get an adequate response from the Pakistani authorities. When the nation is forewarned of floods, it can take various measures such as evacuating people and emptying out reservoirs so floodwaters can be contained in them. Forecasting is the key to managing floods. We have a massively developed river control system but lack the knowledge of how to use it in case of a catastrophe. A key part of improving Pakistan’s flood forecasting capacity is to uncover the secrets of this current monsoon era.

Making Pakistan a flood-resilient nation is a vital task that we must try our best to perform in the years ahead of us.