Water Torture

Photo by Per-Anders Pettersson/UNEP

In the midsummer mayhem of The Day After Tomorrow, Manhattan is monstered by a wall of water brought on by the effects of global warming. As the giant tsunami engulfs the city, skyscrapers and stockbrokers alike are reduced to flotsam. Filmmakers love nothing more than a good mauling of a major metropolis, and as audiences we thrill to the spectacle of the rich and powerful getting their comeuppance. When the wrath of nature is fueling their demise, the sense of schadenfreude is doubly sweet. But out here in the real world, when nature strikes back, it is the poor and powerless who bear the brunt of the assault.

In a paper just published in the journal Global Environmental Change, a researcher at the United Nations University (UNU) chronicles the devastating effects of flooding on the developing world. Each year, 520 million people are directly affected by this most destructive category of environmental disaster, the majority of them among the world’s poorest. One billion now live in the potential path of a 100-year flood, and due to the effects of climate change, rising sea levels and unsustainable human activities, that figure is expected to double by midcentury.

Loss of life, now estimated at 25,000 a year, is just one of the costs, says the paper’s author, Dr. Janos Bogardi, director of the UNU’s Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn. Floods can devastate entire economies and have now become a major impediment to developmental progress in many Third World nations. Worldwide, the total cost of floods and other weather-related disasters is $50 billion to $60 billion a year, which, as Bogardi notes, “is roughly equal to the global aid budget of all donor countries combined.”

Speaking by phone from his native Hungary, Bogardi points out that many of the issues raised in his paper have become abundantly manifest in recent months. This past April, Haiti and the Dominican Republic were devastated by floods that killed an estimated 3,000 people and left the region in chaos; in July, monsoonal rains washed out vast areas of northeast India and Bangladesh, leaving 20 million people stranded, millions of them still homeless. Bangladesh alone has sustained an estimated $7 billion of damage.

“The last three decades have been disastrous in terms of extreme environmental events,” Bogardi says. During that time there have been more storm surges of greater magnitude than ever before on record, and more and more people are being affected by these events. The irony is that since the appalling Bangladesh floods of 1970 — in which 300,000 people died! — rescue techniques and responses have improved so that fewer people lose their lives than a decade ago. But as Bogardi notes, “People who lose everything have their lives, but they may have a very miserable life.” Since the 1970s, there has been a sixfold increase of economic losses due to flooding.

All nations, rich and poor, are increasingly affected by torrential waters — in the U.S., the Mississippi River flood of 1993 caused $15 billion of damage while the European floods of 2002 cost $20 billion — but proportionally, poor nations suffer far more severely. While economic losses due to natural disasters destroy resources equivalent to 2 percent of GDP in developed countries, that can go as high as 13 percent, a figure that Bogardi says is now “preventing many nations from breaking out of the cycle of poverty.”

Dr. Ralph Daley, director of the UNU’s International Network on Water, Environment and Health, based in Hamilton, Ontario, confirms this bleak prognosis. Daley points to the case of Bangladesh, which “has been hit by so many floods it is now going backward in terms of development. It’s why they are one of the poorest countries on Earth — they just can’t make any headway because they keep getting flooded out.” Unlike the U.S. and Europe, which can marshal a vast array of services in the wake of such events — witness the recent response to Hurricane Charley — there is virtually no infrastructure to deal with these things in Bangladesh. “The difficulty these people have just getting back to zero is overwhelming,” Daley says.

Another region that has been badly hit is Central America and the Caribbean. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras, and it is only now, Daley says, that Hondurans are recovering. “I had colleagues working there at the time, and everything just came to a halt. Since then they have basically made no progress whatever.” Likewise, Daley says, it will take Haiti and the Dominican Republic, two already deeply impoverished nations, years to deal with the economic fallout from the April floods there. Roughly the same number of people died then as at the World Trade Center, yet the media have no continuing interest in Haiti’s catastrophe.


Extreme events like the Bangladeshi monsoons are being triggered by changing global weather patterns, but Bogardi notes that the effects of these events are being greatly magnified by changing patterns of human activity. There just weren’t so many people living in flood-prone areas 200 years ago, while we now have massive migrations into those regions. Throughout the developing world, people are being forced by economic necessity, political conditions, warfare and environmental catastrophe to leave their native homes, and too many of them are settling in areas inherently prone to flooding, often because they don’t have much choice.

Other human activities further exacerbate the problem, particularly deforestation. Haiti is a prime example. Stripped bare of trees, hillsides there became mudslides that cut off villages and impeded rescue efforts. Forested slopes naturally soak up water, whereas bare slopes not only act as sluices, when rain comes it washes away the soil, further adding to environmental damage. The combination of increasingly frequent extreme-weather events and unsustainable human practices has become untenable, Bogardi says.

While many countries are generous with disaster relief, they are far less giving when it comes to pre-disaster preparedness. For every $100 spent on relief, we typically spend just $1 on preparedness. Recent studies have shown that the cost of making buildings disaster-resistant adds between 2 percent and 12 percent to the average construction cost, while warning and forecasting systems commonly show a cost-benefit ratio of 10 or 15 to 1. Our calculus is insanely out of whack, Bogardi says: “There needs to be a fundamental shift in thinking from reaction and charity to anticipation and preemption.”

It is for this reason that the United Nations has set up the Institute for Environment and Human Security, which Bogardi heads. “There has been a realization at the U.N. that the environment itself is a critical dimension in human security,” Bogardi says, along with issues such as food security, AIDS and civil war. At the institute, researchers will look at the interaction of environmental and social conditions, taking into account a set of factors that includes climate change, expanding populations, human migration, land degradation and changing availability of resources.

While George Bush continues to deny that global warming is real, hundreds of millions of people are already feeling its effects. If present trends continue, by midcentury 2 billion people will live in the path of a major flood. It is too late to prevent the flooding itself, but for that reason it is even more imperative that we begin to take seriously the question of how to ensure the security of the lives and nations at risk. On the silver screen the rain stops when the director calls cut — or at least, when the movie ends. Meanwhile, the real waters keep on falling.

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