Whose disaster is it?

History, past and current, is full of stories of lives of individual people, and entire cities and civilizations being shattered within days due to terrorism and war.  But we are now seeing more and more of another kind of destruction too: in Africa, in Southeast Asia, in India.

There are pictures of barren land and fields full of stubble where there should have been green crop standing tall, pictures of desperate faces turned skyward, skies an unrelenting blue.  This year, South Africa has seen the worst drought in three decades*.  There’s not enough water for crops, and not enough fodder for the cattle.  As food prices spiral upwards, the less poor sell what they have, and those who have nothing to sell, starve.  About 2.7 million households are reported to be affected in South Africa, and losses due to agriculture alone are estimated to be around 10 billion rand.

Then, from Southeast Asia, there are images of raging fires, of whole forests burning, of haze through which you can just about see the outline of a desperate orangutan or of desperate people. In Indonesia wild lands burned in fires more devastating than any other in over a decade**.  Apart from the obvious damage to Indonesia’s wildscapes, half a million people are in severe risk of respiratory disorders, and agriculture and trade losses could amount to millions of dollars.

There is only one thing that can bring back some measure of happiness to people in South Africa and Indonesia: Rain.

But from closer home, there are pictures of people standing neck deep in water, submerged automobiles, floating furniture, stranded animals.  The south Indian city of Chennai is reeling under the heaviest downpour it has seen in a century***.  As streets and homes flood, and transportation, communication and the city’s economic activities are grounded, people wonder if it is the rain or bad urban planning that is the culprit.  Meanwhile, two million people are affected, more than two hundred have lost their lives, and there are economic losses amounting to crores of rupees.

Amidst news of dreadful hardship are videos of reporters helping struggling farmers, stories of researchers fire fighting in their beloved field sites, a photo of a man carrying a dog through knee-deep water…

But who is to blame for all this hardship? Some say, ‘It’s El Nino that’s to blame, nothing can be done’.  Some blame it on climate change.  But others blame it on more proximate processes: corruption and the sheer lack of planning and implementation – illegal structures usurping wetlands and improper storm-water management systems in Chennai, and unregulated burning of forests and drainage of peat-lands in Indonesia.  Most are left wondering if these disasters could have been avoided after all…

Future literature will probably refer to 2015 as a ‘landmark year’ for many reasons. But haven’t there been ‘landmark’ droughts and floods and fires that have ravaged countries for centuries?  Landmarks may be for documenting events in history, for recording for posterity.  But landmarks are also to learn from: to find our way to a destination, and sometimes, to never walk down a path again.

*Read about South Africa’s drought here.

**A factual article about Indonesia’s fires, and a researcher’s story of what happened.

***More about the Chennai floods here.

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3 Responses to Whose disaster is it?

  1. Sangha Mitra says:

    What is the way forward? You can’t reverse ‘development’ as it is seen as ‘progress’, and hence, a positive thing. But, as less ‘developed’ regions clamour to climb on to the bandwagon, perhaps, ‘ruralisation’ of newly urbanising areas can be an answer? ‘Rural’, for instance, brings to mind access by walk of most resources – shops, schools, community centres. This means lesser dependence on fossil fuel. ‘Rural’ also reminds us of Nature – being closer to it in terms of not only landscapes, open spaces and cleaner air, but also organic products like leaf plates and cups, and re-use and recycling of everyday-use material. This means a more sustainable lifestyle. I am sure those who work in the remote reaches will have many more ideas to share of how much an urban citizen can learn from the lifestyles of their rural counterparts.

    While addressing extant ills that result in disasters seems a long-term solution, it is important, as you say, to not walk down the same path. What ails the present systems can be assessed and alternatives implemented as the ‘development’ bug spreads to newer areas.


    • vtyadu says:

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

      ‘Ruralization’, as you say, could be part of the solution. However, I see it more as a change in mindset than anything else – just people and societies wanting to live in a more sustainable way. Development per se may not be bad, so long as it is coupled with proper planning and genuine concern for the environment, and is implemented in a corruption-free manner.


  2. Pingback: Battles for the commons | Science, Lives

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