The environmental impacts of natural disasters



When natural disasters collide with human affairs there are often immediate losses of human life and widespread devastation to the built environment to contend with. But when these disasters strike the longer term environmental impacts can exact an additional and sometimes lasting toll on the health and wellbeing of the people affected.

Two hundred million people were affected by natural disasters in 2007, up 48% from 2006 according to the United Nations. 2008 has already been marked by natural disasters, most recently a devastating cyclone in Myanmar and the major earthquake that has just struck in China.

Myanmar Cyclone - Escalating Environmental Impacts

On May 2, 2008, Cyclone Nargis made landfall in the country of Myanmar. The cyclone caused an estimated $10 billion worth of damage and left over 80,000 dead, with an additional 56,000 still unaccounted for. Many of those perished due to environmental impacts that followed the storm.

Water supplies have become tainted and large areas of agricultural land were destroyed. Bursting sewage mains flooded the landscape with waste, and hundreds of thousands are now without shelter and safe drinking water throughout the Irrawaddy delta, the rice bowl of the impoverished Southeast Asian country.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) up to 20% of the rice fields have been destroyed in the delta. Much of the rice from the previous harvest is likely badly damaged as well. This could have a lasting impact on the country as food prices around the world continue to rise.

Myanmar’s agriculture ministry says it needs $243 million for rice seed, fertilizer and to rehabilitate paddy fields after the cyclone flooded 5,000 sq kms (1,931 sq miles) of the delta.

According to Sarah Ireland, regional director of Oxfam, an international organization seeking solutions to global poverty, Myanmar is facing a ’perfect storm’ of conditions that could lead to an outbreak of waterborne diseases.

’The ponds are full of dead bodies, the wells have saline water, and even things like a bucket are in scarce supply,’ Ireland said.

The World Health Organization also released a risk assessment which, as well as waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid, warns of an increased threat of malaria and dengue fever, as receding floods will increase the number of breeding sites for mosquitoes. The WHO’s latest update reports cases of diarrhea and dysentery in the affected areas.

Some experts believe the death toll could climb 15 times higher if people do not get clean water, food and sanitation soon. A remaining 1.5 million people in Myanmar are on the brink of a ’massive public health catastrophe,’ the British charity Oxfam warned this weekend.

'Just like Louisiana, no one in Myanmar expected devastation of this scale. Few considered how environmental damage would raise the death toll.' Said Dr. Deborah Brosnan, SEI President. A marine natural disaster expert, Dr. Brosnan has worked in Asia after the tsunami and in the Gulf Coast after Katrina.

The environmental damage there makes it challenging for aid workers to navigate the maze of choked marshes. More dire, the likelihood of community recovery is slim, especially if bodies are disposed in rivers where the community fishes. These factors, not to mention imminent disease, make survival odds for those stranded quite bleak, projects Dr. Brosnan.

Sichuan Earthquake - Minimizing Environmental Impacts

On May 12, 2008, the Sichuan province of China was struck with a 7.9 magnitude earthquake; the most severe in three decades. To date the death toll is nearing 40,000 with 30,000 this still missing. Damages may exceed $20 billion.

The quake was strong enough to level over 216,000 buildings in the region. With such devastation comes the risk of environmental contamination. According to China’s Deputy Industry Minister, Xi Guohua, factories, coal mines, and chemical plants were either damaged or destroyed. China has ordered such facilities and oil and gas wells affected by the quake to halt operations.

Towngas China Co., the mainland unit of Hong Kong’s largest gas supplier, had to halt distribution after the quake caused natural gas leaks in the distribution line. After just a few hours, the leak was sealed and services resumed.

In response to halting energy production, the State Reserves Bureau released 44,000 barrels of fuel from the stockpile according to the country’s main planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission.

China’s environment ministry has also sent a team to Sichuan tasked with preventing nuclear radiation and pollution as a result of the quake. Local environmental bureaus in Sichuan and 10 surrounding provinces were ordered to monitor conditions around nuclear facilities, the ministry said in a statement yesterday.

Though Sichuan has no commercial nuclear power plants, the province has extensive military and nuclear weapons research facilities. The headquarters for China’s nuclear weapons design facility is in Mianyang and a plutonium processing facility is in Guangyuan, both cities damaged by the quake.

More than 30 sources of radiation were buried by debris from the massive earthquake, but all have either been recovered or safely cordoned off, state media reported Tuesday.

Information so far suggests 'a good reaction by the Chinese teams,' said Thierry Charles, director of plant safety at the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety, an international nuclear watchdog.

The earthquake also affected food production in the region. The disaster killed 12.5 million farm animals - mostly chickens - and wrecked vegetable crops and irrigation systems needed to grow rice, the Agriculture Ministry says. More than 50,000 acres of vegetables and more than 25,000 acres of wheat were destroyed by the earthquake. Damage to irrigation systems could prevent farmers from growing rice on as much as 250,000 acres of rice paddies, the ministry said.

The government has shipped extra supplies of rice, pork, soybean oil and other food items to the province to ensure food supplies last until the area recovers.

Can Environmental Impacts be prevented?

Although natural disasters are highly variable in intensity and difficult to predict, many of the associated impacts can be mitigated suggests the Sustainable Ecosystems Institute (SEI). Prevention and response can both serve to minimize the inevitable environmental impacts of a natural disaster.

China’s and Myanmar’s response to the recent disasters represent a dichotomy in disaster relief. China’s quick response to locate radioactive sources, supply food and water and shut down chemical plants and oil production likely saved lives and prevented a significant level of contamination.

The government of Myanmar on the other hand initially refused aid and responded slowly to the cyclone. Now the situation is turning into what the SEI and WHO are viewing as an environmental and health crisis which extends beyond the original disaster.

However, appropriate response is just one piece of the puzzle in reducing the impacts of a natural disaster and experts agree that prevention counts for much more. Proper prevention measures in both Myanmar and China could have significantly reduced the number of casualties and structural damage.

Dr. Brosnan believes that such prevention measures are inherent in sustainable development. 'Many major crises in the world today are rooted in the environment. Security, health, cultural integrity, and social justice all have roots in how we use our environment,' says Dr. Brosnan.

For example, the upper half of the Irrawaddy Delta, home to six million people, is rapidly being converted from marsh to rice paddies. The once-dense natural fortress of mangrove forests has been disappearing so fast that one study estimates that all of Myanmar’s mangroves will be gone in 50 years.

According to the SEI, these mangroves, which act as a natural speed bump against storm surges, saved lives and property in SE Asia during the tsunami. Marshes limited damage in Louisiana during Katrina. In Myanmar, it was the twelve-foot storm surge of Nargis, racing across the degraded delta, which killed thousands.

In China, many are now wondering how up to 80% of the buildings in the Sichuan region, including 7,000 schools, collapsed. The likely culprit may prove to be simple negligence or ill conceived urban development plans and standards. Although China has been improving its building code as of late, and even begun developing buildings to achieve LEED certification, many building developers admit to cutting corners or ignoring the building code in order to meet deadlines or save on costs.

This pre- and post-disaster negligence warrants global response, states the SEI. The international organization of scientists urges widespread emergency planning that includes ecological assessment, as well as proven emergency response practices that help people and ecosystems more quickly rebound.

'Based on the predictions of IPCC, we can expect many more natural disasters. Worldwide, governments are unprepared for the scale of disasters, making decisions adequate for small catastrophes but too little for what really happens. We’re seeing this in Myanmar and saw it with Katrina,' added Dr. Brosnan. 'The good news is that we have methods to respond to environmental destruction and allow people and their natural resources to rebound and sustain themselves. The question is whether our advice and input will be heeded.'


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