Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, May 09, 2008

When will they ever learn?

(Above image is from Wikimedia commons.)

I've been pondering what lessons there may be in the recent disaster in Burma. (The people from that country who now live in Massachusetts seem to prefer Burma to Myanmar, so I'm going with it.) The "Reverend" John Hagee -- who John McCain has not been called up on to reject, eject, object, subject, deject, project or retroject -- says that God sent Katrina to destroy the Mississippi coast, Plaquemines Parish, and the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans because a homosexual parade was planned for a couple of weeks later in the French Quarter, which God was kind enough to spare. Mysterious are the ways of the Lord. I'm pretty certain that no homosexual parades were planned in Burma, however.

Since Burma is a Buddhist country, I expect the people are pondering the impermanence of all things and the wisdom of detachment. Fair enough, but are there any more practical lessons? As the map shows, you could not have designed a more destructive storm path. Nargis moved from west to east across the full width of the Irawaddy delta, at just the distance inland to draw the storm surge as far as possible up the river's many mouths. Hundreds of square miles are now under water. This was an extremely powerful storm, and it retained much of its power as it moved across the delta, now doubt because the land was so flat and the storm had enough water under it to continue to function as a tropical cyclone all the way to Thailand. So was the vast destruction caused by this storm just bad luck?

No, no more so than the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. I'll get out of the way quickly the likelihood that global climate change has made such powerful storms more frequent. We'll have to live with that for the foreseeable future. But there are three more points worth considering. In both the Irawaddy and Mississippi deltas, human intervention has destroyed the regions' natural defenses against cyclones. In Louisiana, the Mississipi has been forced into a narrow outlet channel, eliminating the natural process of silt deposition which for thousands of years had built the delta and the vast fringe of wetlands south of New Orleans. As this process was stopped in the 20th century, the wetlands started to erode and disappear, bringing the power of hurricanes and their accompanying storm surge that much closer to the city. In Burma, the mangrove forests which once fringed the delta have been destroyed to make way for aquaculture. Hence the storm surge moved unimpeded up the many mouths of the Irawaddy river.

Second, the Irawaddy delta was very sparsely populated until the British settled people there and developed rice farming in order to feed their south Asian colonies. It is perhaps only in hindsight that we can be so certain that it was foolish for so many people to live in such a vulnerable place, just as we can say about the Mississippi Gulf coast and the Lower Ninth Ward. But in both cases, the possibility of catastrophe was apparent and governments did not prepare adequately. Now that the question arises about whether the devastated areas ought to be repopulated, we have seen in the U.S. a controversy with far more passion than sense. (For the record, I think people need to be moved away from the coast as much as possible, and from areas of New Orleans which are near or below sea level. However, the interests of the affected communities have to be honored in the process. That means a new Lower Ninth Ward, on higher ground. I'm not sure what that might mean in Burma, but it's not for me to say.)

Finally, the atrocious response of the governments in both the U.S. and Burma is likely to be the most impactful legacy of both storms. It signaled the beginning of the end of the rule of the Republican conservative coalition in the U.S., and it may turn out to be the end for the Burmese junta. We can only hope so. If they survive this horror, it can only mean even worse years ahead for the Burmese people.

In broader terms, as a species, we need to find a sustainable coexistence with the rest of nature. Both of these disasters offer clear lessons about our failure to do so.

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