Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Unnatural Disasters Are The Most Dangerous

When it comes to establishing policies and practices that promote resilient communities, there is much attention given to climate-related events.  In fact, the United Nations' Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, doesn't even mention earthquakes (or tsunami or volcanic eruption) within its pages.  As this blog so frequently points out, however, geologic hazards (and related events) take as many lives as climate disasters do. Adapting to both must be our focus, regardless of what actions we may take on the climate side to adopt mitigating practices like reducing energy and carbon emissions.

Curious, I began investigating historical statistics regarding the disasters that have killed the most human beings, thinking that we should always prioritize measures to thwart those events at the top of our adaptation policy list.  It didn't take long to discover something quite horrific.  The most loss of life for any known historic (non-war, non-pandemic-related) disaster occurred in the very recent (relatively speaking) past--partially within my own lifetime, in fact.

First, I ran across this fascinating graphic.  It's a very large image (in its original form, here), but a piece of it is depicted below:

See the largest "bubble?"  It turns out that the largest loss of life in a known disaster occurred during the Great Chinese Famine of 1957-62. Many tend to remove "famine" and "pandemic" from the list of disaster mortality statistics, as they would war deaths. But I appreciated this article addressing it as they did--particularly given that the famine has, at least in part, "natural" origins.  Like so many natural events that turn into "disasters" due to human activity, however, this one swelled out of control and destroyed (estimated) 23 million to as many as 55 million lives.  And the reasons for the exacerbation, though complicated and highly convoluted, stem primarily from the policies and actions of the country's Government at the time. Accounts of what happened and why, range from the scientific to the political to the emotional.  The accounts (particularly the one linked as "emotional") are sobering. 

A recurring theme among these historical accounts is a lack of transparency and a seemingly deliberate ignorance of reality that prevents leaders from seeing, let alone understanding, the problems and potential solutions.  I won't dwell on the details, but I will share the following from the article from linked above:

"According to one study, China experienced some 1,828 major famines in its long history, but what distinguishes the Great Leap Forward from its predecessors are its cause, massive scope, and ongoing concealment. In his recent study of famine, Cormac Ó Gráda suggests that, historically, famines emerged from natural phenomena, sometimes exacerbated by human activity. Modern famines, on the other hand, stem from human factors such as war or ideology exacerbated by natural conditions."

Such was the case in the 1950s-60s China. Like I wrote here many times during the recent COVID-19 Pandemic, building disaster-resistant communities is so much more than just moving (or raising) infrastructure.  It's as much about people.  How we interact, how we treat each other, and how we plan ahead for potential problems is critical to helping preserve our lives and livelihoods.  We need to demand a responsive government with an open mind to keep the best interests of their citizens in mind.


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