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, complex machines made of air, atmospheric engines fueled by warm oceans. Hurricanes are the most intense type of low-pressure system on Earth. A low-pressure system is an area of the atmosphere in which the air is less dense than the surrounding atmosphere. As such, the air rises high up while air from around moves in to take its place. This produces precipitation like rainfall because air that rises cools, causing water vapor in it to condense.

In hurricanes, the process is taken to the extreme. Hurricanes form from low pressure systems, or depressions, over tropical oceans. In these areas, a lot of water evaporates, carrying with it a large amount of heat from the ocean. When that vapor condenses high up in the sky and turns into rain, the heat is transferred to the air. The warmed air rises faster and as it does so, winds converging on the depression speed up and evaporate more water. The winds, however, never manage to fully cover the depression before they too begin to rise because they are deflected by the Earth’s rotation. This can result in a feedback cycle that culminates in a hurricane. The result is a hurricane, a massive storm with extreme rain and extreme winds which create extreme waves in the ocean and which moves 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 often most of all, waves, known as storm surge, which batter and ravage 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 towards the ocean again.

This was not the case for Hurricane Harvey. Unusually for a hurricane, it stalled upon making landfall. 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).  

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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). The country of Pakistan is typically placed in South Asia but in terms of its divisions, 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 all across the world.

Along with this freedom, though, comes a vast multitude of problems that afflicts countries across the world, particularly the developing countries. Pakistan has had more than its share of problems throughout its history and still does. A special category of problems is known as disaster, which are essentially situations in which severe problems are concentrated into single events. The word “disaster” has a lot of meanings, but by the definition concerned here, a disaster is any event in which very bad things happen to a large number of people.
In addition to the ordinary issues that the nation has to deal with on a persistent basis, the people of Pakistan face the risk of numerous kinds of disasters and suffer from their occurrence.

The probability that a disaster will happen is known as risk. A situation that can create disaster, the source of a disaster, is known as a hazard. The word can have a broad meaning. It can refer to a hazardous event or it can refer to the probability of such occurring. When we say that a certain hazard exists in a nation, it means that something there can happen that could lead to disaster. That kind of disaster may occur regularly or it may not have ever occurred before but could still happen. We got to distinguish disasters, the calamity itself that befalls people, from the events that cause them. In fact, when it comes to the basic terminology of the subject we are dealing with, the three words we need to understand are risk, crisis, and disaster. A risk is the ever-present danger of a disaster occurring. A crisis is when an event that could turn into a disaster, a hazardous event, occurs and puts people at imminent risk. A disaster is when people are afflicted by what they were in danger from.

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- prone 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.

An overview of the hazard assessment in Pakistan makes it clear how prone to disasters the nation is and how nearly all Pakistanis, which currently number 190 million people living in a relatively small country, most of them densely packed in smaller areas still, live under great risk. Almost the entire risk consists of natural hazards. These are natural events that have the potential to create disaster for human societies. They are indeed the main cause of disaster all over the world but Pakistan is one of the countries most at risk of natural disasters.

Nature is very active in the territory that graces Pakistan, that is home to such a large population. Such a combination is extremely dangerous, as we shall see here. Across the western side of Pakistan lies the Chaman Fault, which is highly seismically active. From its northern end, it meets with a very complex system of faults in the north of Pakistan and runs down through Khyber-Paktunkwha and then Balochistan, where it turns east toward Sindh and enters the Arabian Sea at the coast there. Across the east side of Pakistan runs the Indus River, which begins, flow-wise, in Azad Kashmir and runs through the western side of Punjab. That province is crisscrossed with a network of large rivers that join the Indus from the east. Smaller rivers from the mountains of the west of Pakistan also flow into the Indus. The greatly enlarged Indus proceeds to run down the middle of Sindh until it enters the ocean. The Indus River regularly overflows and is prone to seeing massive floods, mostly during the summer monsoon.

As a result of this arrangement, most of Pakistan is vulnerable to the world’s 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 often the air as bad weather that causes flooding can also be present with the flooding) 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 is persistently low.

The coast of Pakistan, home to millions of people who almost all are in the bustling megacity of Karachi, has all the hazards that can 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 generating 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 Indus Delta, which is sparsely populated, is highly vulnerable to storm surges and tsunamis because of its low elevation and its network of rivers.

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 often 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 shifted their paths 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 a massive difficulty, especially when the disasters in question destroy or block transportation routes.

All of these natural hazards are major problems confronting Pakistan. But what determines how severe the natural hazards are is not just the extent and nature of the natural processes and conditions that produce them or how many people are in their path but also the state of the human societies exposed to the hazards, the social, political, economic, and material conditions in Pakistan.

This comes in three main forms. First is that the impact of the hazardous natural event could be worsened in many ways by artificial circumstances. Basically, the natural process can interact with the society people surround themselves with to harm these people even more than if the people were just standing in a wilderness. In a natural disaster, the infrastructure and materials all around us can become hazards themselves or natural forces can be amplified. Common examples are buildings collapsing in an earthquake and floodwaters in a city not being drained quickly because the ground is covered in concrete and tarmac. Earthquakes, in fact, get their hazardousness almost entirely from human infrastructure, unless they cause another natural event like landslides. The hazard of seismic activity, basically, is not typically natural.

Secondly, there is how resistant human society and infrastructure are to the impact of a natural force based upon what conditions they are in. They could be structured in such a way that they are strong in the face of a natural hazard or they could be weak and give way easily. For example, buildings can provide people refuge from floodwaters but those that are small or weak enough can fall down due to the force of moving water. If infrastructure systems such as water supply and transportation are damaged by a natural hazard event, people can suffer even more and the damage is more likely to occur if the systems are poorly developed or poorly maintained.
Thirdly, there is how capable the affected society is in responding to the outbreak of disaster, in dealing with it. Usually, the poorer a society is, the less is its capacity to cope. People have fewer means. They have less to do anything with, such as moving or obtaining resources, and have enough only to get by with normal circumstances. They are less able to put enough extra effort into dealing with extra problems in a disaster.

The measure of how vulnerable people are to the occurrence of a natural disaster based upon the circumstances that they are living in is known as social vulnerability. As a rule, these circumstances are only of the society they are living in and exclude natural conditions which influence the impact of a natural hazardous event, such as how steep is the angle of a coastline struck by a tropical cyclone.

The people of Pakistan are highly vulnerable to the various natural hazards that exist in the nation. Pakistan is a developing country. That means that it is not a wealthy country. Ranking among the countries of the world and their development, Pakistan comes somewhere in the middle. But the nation does have quite a lot of power. For example, it developed nuclear weapons and it has a very large military. On the other hand, there is also a lot of corruption in the nation, impeding its ability to prepare for natural disasters and even to respond to them, as the rotten in authority might continue with their dirty business when an emergency breaks out. Poverty is widespread across the nation. Infrastructure everywhere tends to be poorly developed and poorly maintained. Public institutions are not very strong.

The disaster risks outlined are thus extreme and are among the main 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 well-being 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.

Tragedy at Bahawalpur

Eid is always a joyous time for any Muslim country, with three days of festivities and celebrations after a month of fasting. But for Pakistan, this Eid was marred by an enormous tragedy of a truly horrific nature. On June 25, the last day of Ramadan, an oil tanker on a highway near the city of Bahawalpur (southern Punjab) flipped over and crashed. 10,000 gallons of oil spilled out, forming large puddles. The scene of the accident quickly drew in a large crowd that tried to collect the oil. Several motorists stopped and as news of the accident spread, villagers from all around the area converged with buckets and cans to collect free oil. About an hour after the crash, the oil tanker went up in an enormous explosion which destroyed everything around it and set all the oil, and many of the people, on fire. Dozens died on the spot. Scores were wounded and taken to hospitals and the death toll rose over time. By the end of the day, the death toll was put at 150. The number of dead is now 219. 140 are injured, many critically.

The Bahawalpur oil tanker explosion is one of the worst accidents in Pakistan’s history, one of the worst road accidents in the world, and a major disaster in Pakistan. It is a testament to the various deficits in how the country is run. It is an example of the country’s poor road safety, inept authorities, inefficient emergency services, low public safety awareness, inadequate medical services, desperate poverty, and generally poor emergency management.

It is also an example of how poorly information from remote areas is processed in Pakistan, Details of the event have been muddled. Weeks after, there is no certainty regarding what happened. What we know is that a tank truck was driving from Karachi to Lahore on National Highway 5. It crashed in a rural area called Ramzanpur Joya, near the city of Bahawalpur. The truck was later revealed to be contracted for Shell Pakistan Limited.

Initially, it was reported that while turning a sharp bend on the highway, the truck burst one of its tires and the driver lost control, causing the vehicle to overturn. It was later revealed that a bus came in front of the truck and then suddenly braked, so the truck driver turned to the right to avoid hitting the bus, whereupon it overturned, blocked the road and caused a traffic jam. Many people in cars and on motorbikes, however, seemed content with stopping to collect the spilled oil. Many people who were working in plantations nearby learned of the accident and also rushed to the site to collect oil. As news spread, the crowd kept swelling and more and more men, women, and children gathered at the oil spill. People called their relatives on the cell phone to join in, and reportedly, a loudspeaker at a nearby mosque was used to inform people of the oil spill so they could come and collect it. The authorities, however, say that this is unconfirmed.

Local media arrived at the scene and videos were made of the oil spill. The police say that they also arrived at the scene and warned the crowd to get away from the oil, but they were ignored. According to witnesses, the driver of the crashed truck also told the crowd the same thing. He is quoted as saying, “What is the use of this petrol? What will you do with it now?” while carrying a bucket.

Videos taken of the crash scene, however, do not show any police.

45 minutes after the crash, the oil burst into flames. It is not known how the oil was ignited. The most likely explanation is that somebody lit a cigarette and threw the butt on the ground near the tanker. Other theories suggest it was a spark from one of the vehicles or the batteries of one of the cell phones people were using.

The tanker exploded, immediately incinerating the people around it. The fire rapidly spread through the oil slicks with hundreds trapped in it. Yet more people rushed to the site, this time with containers filled with water, and tried to extinguish the fire. Reportedly, the same mosque which told people of the crash now announced news of the fire and implored people to put it out. Then the fire brigade and Rescue 1122 arrived on the scene. They rescued people from the fire and put them in ambulances. After two hours of fighting the blaze, the firefighters managed to put it out.

There were no medical centers that were nearby. 90 of the victims were taken to two hospitals in Bahawalpur, the district hospital and Victoria Hospital. But these two hospitals had no burn centers, so 51 of the most seriously wounded were then airlifted to a hospital in Multan, dozens of miles to the north. Many of those injured suffered severe burns. Most of the people who died were unrecognizable. Many were burned down to the skeleton. Even though the driver suffered burns over 90 percent of his body, the police say they arrested him for their investigation. The driver made a statement and later died in hospital. A week later, the death toll rose to 200. At the time of writing, it stands at 250, while 140 are injured. Twenty of the dead are children.

The disaster is horrifying in terms of how so many died so quickly. Not to mention the severity of injuries amongst the survivors. Being burnt is one of the worst injuries people can sustain. Severe burns can lead to lasting disfigurement and disability. That is how several of the victims are going to end up, bearing the scars of the terrible event. All could have easily avoided ending up like this. The Bahawalpur oil tanker fire is a disaster that is senseless and gruesome to an extreme degree.

The nation’s sense of horror is somewhat deadened by frequent tragedies of the kind. In fact, the day before the tanker accident, there were two bomb blasts in Parachinar, FATA, which killed more than a hundred people and injured hundreds, as well as a suicide bombing in Quetta which killed 13.

Nonetheless, the oil tanker tragedy received far more attention than the Parachinar bombing tragedy.  Bhawalpur overshadowed Parachinar in the news as the Prime Minister shortened his visit to the UK to visit the tanker victims. Was it because mass deaths caused by terrorist attacks are much more common in Pakistan than mass deaths caused by transportation and industrial accidents? Or because FATA is a much more marginal and inaccessible area than southern Punjab?

Incidents like the Bahawalpur tanker disaster, in which crowds collected around oil spills and suffered from ignition of the oil, have happened several times before  in Pakistan, including one time when oil spilled from a tanker truck near Jhang in 1999 and 65 people died. No lessons have been learnt from that incident, as no policy change was made neither were people made more aware of the danger. We must not let it be the same with Bhawalpur oil tanker spill tragedy.

Already, another oil tanker accident has taken place in Vehari, People ran towards oil despite the Bahawalpur oil tanker tragedy being recent news. Pakistan is badly in need of learning the lessons from Bahawalpur.

Pakistan has an appalling record in road safety. The nation’s roads, particularly the highways, are hazardous because of the poor design of roads, poorly maintained vehicles, and reckless driving. The kind of vehicles that pose the greatest danger, those that can cause great disasters that threaten large numbers of people, are trucks loaded with hazardous materials, particularly tanker trucks.

Tanker trucks carry liquid materials. They usually consist of a large cylinder-shaped container on wheels. As the container is always wider than the wheels, tanker trucks have a high center of gravity and are therefore difficult and dangerous to drive. They can easily tip over. A violent crash can puncture the walls of the container and the contents can leak out. Therefore, tanker trucks that carry dangerous materials, of which the most common is oil, always need great safety precautions in their design and their operation. Pakistan has a number of laws dealing with this matter, but they tend to be archaic. Laws in Pakistan are not updated and often lag behind social progress.

The official inquiry on Bhawalpur found that the oil tanker did not follow proper safety guidelines. The truck, which carried 50,000 litres of fuel, had only four axles while an oil tanker needs at least 5 axles to carry that much weight. It also turned out that the fitness certificate of the truck was fake. It is quite appalling that such low standards were followed for something so hazardous. There obviously are other tanker trucks in the nation which are the same and Pakistan must now seek out all trucks which do not follow safety standards and get rid of them. Pakistan must improve both its laws and its enforcement of them.

The Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority of Pakistan (OGRA) held Shell Pakistan Limited responsible for the accident, and ordered it to pay one million rupees to the family of each person killed and half a million rupees to each injured. Shell also had to pay a fine of 10 million rupees.

Though the tragedy was entirely avoidable, the owners of the oil tanker cannot be held solely responsible for it. Spills from oil tanker crashes tend not to pose a great danger because they tend to cover a small area and people usually get away from the oil. But in the case of Bahawalpur, (and many oil tanker crashes in Third World countries), people exposed themselves to extreme hazard by flocking to the site for oil. This part needs an explanation.

People rush to collect the oil because petroleum is very valuable. They intend either to sell the oil or use it for lighting fires. The people of the area where the crash took place are poor and suffer frequent power outages and energy shortages. It is difficult for them to obtain adequate fuel to light fires with. Getting their hands on free petroleum, which they could sell or light fires with, was a huge boon for them. They jumped at the opportunity that placed itself in their midst as a crashed truck leaking oil. The Bahawalpur oil tanker disaster is thus a prime example of how poorly the country is providing for its people. Southern Punjab is not the poorest part of Pakistan yet the rural villagers there say that the government focuses on development for the urban areas and for the elite, not for the common masses. The tragedy is a stark wake-up call for Pakistan to change its development priorities.

It is understood why the victims wanted the oil, but what needs to be understood is why they placed themselves in so much danger and why they could not take measures to make themselves safer while being thus exposed. That the victims had no or very little education is obvious. Education is chronically lacking in Pakistan, with the literacy rate at 58 percent for the entire nation. Yet, you don’t need literacy or education to know that petroleum is flammable and that you will get burnt if you are surrounded by burning oil. Some of the victims of the fire, the motorists and the truck driver, should have been less ignorant of the matter. Yet, they did not keep their distance.

It is a glaring display of the tendency to put material pursuit before personal safety. It seems people were not aware of how easy it was for the oil to ignite. But if it is true that somebody was smoking a cigarette in the vicinity and threw the burning butt onto the oil, it is carelessness that defies belief. What also defies belief is that the driver stood close to the oil all along. He, a trained professional, should have known better.

The ignorance of the masses is also revealed by how they responded after the oil caught fire. Witnesses say that they brought buckets of water to fight the fire. It is both useless and dangerous fighting oil fires with water. Oil does not mix with water and is lighter than water. Thus, it floats to the top of water and continues burning. The urgent goal for them was not to put the fire out but to rescue the people caught in fire. Pouring water on them not only will not work but could spread the burning oil further on the person and around. The way to save a person covered in burning oil is to cover them with a sheet so that the oil is starved of oxygen. If material used to cover them is porous, then it should be made wet first as oil cannot penetrate a wet cloth.

As Pakistan develops, it will tackle desperate poverty. However, improving the lot of the poor is a long-term goal. What needs to be done more urgently is to make the common masses more safety-conscious.

The police had the duty of keeping people safe. If people ignored police’s call to stay away, the latter should have used force to keep people away. This would have been easier if they cordoned off the area before the crowd assembled. But the police did not do so because they arrived too late. It is very common for the police in Pakistan to take a long time responding to an emergency.

What should be done in events like these is for the driver to call the police immediately and for the nearest police officers to arrive. A significant police presence all along highways is important so that police can quickly reach scenes of accidents. But when people are in need of being rescued, the police alone are not adequate. Ambulances, fire trucks, and other rescue vehicles need to be able to reach any accident scene with lightning speed.

The big problem in the case of the Bahawalpur tragedy is the huge numbers of people affected, which requires emergency crews to arrive in significant numbers. They would have to come from a major hospital and fire station. Highways are very long stretches and one cannot have a big emergency station located along every ten miles or so. Emergency services are concentrated in populated localities, whereas a highway mostly runs through areas little population. But highways are also hazardous places. Significant safety coverage is badly needed.

There should be firefighting, rescue, and medical facilities specifically for the highways, just as the highways have their own police units. There must be emergency vehicles on hand which can reach any part of the highway in a short period of time and there should be small firefighting and medical stations spread along the highway. Such hospitals would have been of immense value to the Bhawalpur burn victims.

After suffering severe burns, the victims of the oil tanker fire then suffered from severe lack of medical facilities. There were some hospitals nearby to go to, but they had no burn centers, so the injured had to be shifted further away to Multan and Lahore. The number of injured turned out to be difficult for medical facilities to accommodate.

People who suffer severe burns are in vital need of extensive hospitalization. They often need a very long time to recover, during which time they need to remain in medical care. Medical institutions typically have a particular facility for burn victims known as a burn center. Burn centers need great care in having sanitation because burn victims are highly prone to infection.

Healthcare services in Pakistan are in an extremely poor state. The number of hospitals is inadequate and healthcare workers are in short supply. The government spends only 2.6 percent of its money on healthcare and medical services are usually freely available only to the rich bureaucrats. Hospital beds, which are particularly important for burn victims, number only 0.6 for every 1,000 Pakistanis. Given how common terrorism is in Pakistan, one would expect the nation’s hospitals to be adapted to treating large numbers of wounded.

So, Pakistan badly needs change in many ways. But what we need to do is go over what should have been done during Bahawalpur emergency on June 25. Firefighters arrived immediately after the blaze started. But that was one of the biggest mistakes. They should have sped towards the scene as soon as the oil tanker had the accident. It is not enough to respond once a calamity starts. Preventive action must also be taken. Hence, as soon as the driver got out of the truck, he should have called police. The police should have notified the fire department and both should have arrived in case a blaze started.

Officers that arrived on the scene should assume that people might be attracted to free oil and taken preventative action to prevent the crowd from forming. If they could not, saving the crowd from the threat of an oil fire should have been left to the fire department. A fire truck could be able to disperse the crowd by driving towards them or by spraying them with water, but there is a better course of action. When the fire tenders are called to the scene, this is what they should have done. They should have taken out their hoses and used it to spray foam, or whatever else they use to fight oil fires, onto the oil, specifically around the people collecting the oil. Oil fire inhibitors not only extinguish oil fires but prevent them from starting or spreading in the first place. The oil collectors could be annoyed at this action and could leave.

We cannot change what happened. But we can change what could happen in the future. As another such calamity could happen any moment, and indeed nearly did so in Vehari, we need to start now. All emergency services across Pakistan must be instructed in what to do if an oil tanker crashes and oil spills. There must also be a review done of the entire oil tanker service in Pakistan. All tanker trucks must be examined to ensure safety compliance.

Finally, we need to make everybody in Pakistan aware that they should not do what the Bahawalpur victims did.  As the disaster is a recent event and the treatment of the wounded is an ongoing event, we have the opportunity to raise awareness. One aspect of poverty and ignorance is that people are unaware of events as they happen. They are too busy with livelihood to keep up with the news or are deprived of means of news. But we must find a way to make sure every Pakistani knows of what happened at Bahawalpur and what should have happened to prevent the disaster. Reporting news of calamities should simultaneously be the means of educating people in safety measures.

The struggle for the survivors of Bahawalpur is just beginning. Scores of people are still badly wounded and in hospital, and while the death toll right now has stopped rising, the victims might in the coming days contract infection. Action at this stage can improve their care. We should shift the victims to burn centers all across Pakistan. Donations too can help. How much people can donate to a relief operation is dependent on what sort of image the disaster gives. This is where media sets in. Humanitarian organizations should appeal for help and rouse the world with coverage of the disaster.

The hundred injured victims have a long and arduous recovery ahead of them. Most of them will be affected for life and must be supported.

Every aspect of the disaster calls for change in Pakistan. Better measures to prevent oil spills and oil truck crashes are needed. Better Emergency services to do their best at rescuing and treating people affected by oil fires are needed. But one of the things that we most need to change is what is the easiest to change, the danger of crowds being drawn towards oil spills. The Bahawalpur calamity is the very epitome of an avoidable disaster. Everybody who fell victim did so because they placed themselves in danger. Had people stayed away, the oil likely would not even have ignited and would be safely cleanend up.

There is much that Pakistan needs in the way of emergency services and the management of hazards and disasters. But what is needed in Pakistan most of all is that its people are made capable of ensuring their own safety.