May 2008 has brought a cluster of major hazard events: a volcano in Chile, the cyclone in Burma and earthquakes in China
The cyclone and earthquakes have become disasters, responsible for significant loss of life.
Many distressing news stories have covered the plight of Burmese and Chinese families.
As events unfolded, each hazard revealed that political decisions made in these different countries – notably, Burma’s continuing attempts to isolate itself from the rest of the world, along with China’s one-child policy – have greatly affected long-term impacts for people living in these regions.
Hazards and disasters of May 2008
Will the one-child policy make it harder for China to recover?
Have Burmese politics worsened the Cyclone Nargis disaster?
Geographers define a natural hazard as a potentially dangerous physical event occurring close to a population (who are said to be at risk). A hazard is thus a function of both the magnitude of the physical event and the state of preparedness of the society that is exposed to risk.
Hazard risks (especially the threat of direct mortality) tend to be much lower for societies that possess the knowledge and financial capital to insulate themselves from the worst effects wrought by the natural environment, such as the United States (which routinely experiences both earthquakes and hurricanes).
A disaster occurs when the worst potential of a hazard is realised - due to lack of warning, or failure of defences – resulting in major loss of life and / or property. Disasters are more likely to occur in low-income nations but sometimes can still happen even in well-prepared places, including the United States (when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans).
Three major natural hazards – a cyclone in Burma, a volcano in Chile and an earthquake in China – occurred within days of one another in May 2008. By comparing the effects of each, we can begin to understand how human choices - where people live, what kind of buildings they live in, their level of preparedness, their relationships with other places and people, their attitudes towards the receipt of international aid – all have an important influence on the levels of harm that are actually done.
A comparison table of the three hazardous events
Chile’s Chaiten volcano
Burma’s Cyclone Nargis
China’s Sichuan earthquake
02 May 2008
03 May 2008
12 May 2008
Lava flows and ash falls (15cm deep in places) with further potential for pyroclastic flows. Highly active destructive plate boundary - Chile has world’s second most active string of volcanoes.
Level 4 (Saffir-Simpson Scale) tropical cyclone of the North Indian Ocean basin. The low-pressure storm system is driven by evaporation over warm ocean waters.
Nargis reached a maximum wind speed of 215 km/hr.
Force 7.9 (MMS) earthquake caused by the northward movement of the India plate at a rate of 5 cm/year and its collision with Eurasia, resulting in the uplift of the Himalaya and Tibetan plateau and associated earthquake activity.
The area is settled but not densely populated. The nearest settlement of Chaiten is home to just 4,000 people.
This area is densely populated with millions of people farming on the low-lying Irrawady delta that lay right in the cyclone path.
China is the world’s most populated nation (1.3 billion) which raises hazard potential. Although China is developing rapidly, older buildings lack earthquake resilience.
Only one death has been reported, thanks to the speedy evacuation and good hazard preparation. Some people in the town of Futaleufu have suffered breathing difficulties due to ash, but this is all a long way from reaching disaster status
Reports suggest that the immediate death toll may have been as high as 135,000. Secondary effects (famine, disease) will surely result in even higher disaster status – not helped by the suspicion with which Burma’s military rulers view foreign aid offers, often refusing access.
Reports suggest the death toll could rise from 69,142 to as many as 72,000. However, Chinese officials responded better than in the past to the earthquake emergency. They sent 50,000 troops to the province to search for survivors and showed a greater sense of accountability to their people than Burma’s rulers.
At the time of writing the reconstruction effort was in full swing. According to the government, relief workers had completed 57,100 temporary homes and materials had arrived for 88,600 more. Nearly 1 million tents have been sent to the region.
With its epicentre in Wenchuan County, the 7.9 (Moment Magnitude Scale) earthquake event occurred 92 km northwest of the city of Chengdu in eastern Sichuan province on 12 May.
Although over 1500 km from Beijing, it was strongly felt there. Dozens of significant aftershocks followed, leading many people to start sleeping in the open air for fear of being caught inside a collapsing building.
Earthquakes of this size always have the potential to cause extensive loss of life. In one of the worst-affected areas, local officials in Yingxiu, in Wenchuan County, said that out of the town's population of 10,000,over half have died.
In another city, Mianyang, 18,000 people were left buried under rubble, while in nearby Mianzhu, at least 4,800 became trapped. By some suggestions the total death toll could rise to 72,000 (at the time of writing, 69,142 were confirmed dead and a further 17,551 missing). 368,545 people have been injured, while around 5 million people have been made homeless.
Hazard impacts are measured in other ways too. There are economic effects to be considered, as well as the irreversible loss of ancient monuments or historical landmarks. Long-term impacts include hazards making their presence felt far into the future through insurance claims - or losses in tourist revenues that impact negatively upon local economies.
However, one extra factor makes this disaster especially devastating for the Chinese. The earthquake struck during the early afternoon (1428 local time) when children were at school. The BBC's Dan Griffiths, in Juyuan, said more than 900 children were thought to have died when they became trapped in one collapsed school building (Juyuan Middle School). Almost 7,000 classrooms are reported to have collapsed, killing more than 11,000 children and teachers, triggering complaints that the schools were badly built.
Griffiths reported that “China's one child policy means that, for most of the relatives desperately waiting outside, their only offspring is under the rubble.” This means that in some of these poorer areas of China, an entire generation will have been wiped out. Questions will surely now be asked about the long-term sustainability of entire settlements like Juyuan.
The Chinese government are sending medics to offer reverse sterilisation operations to parents who lost their only children in last month's quake, the state media says. Under China's one-child policy, parents who lose a child or have one with disabilities are allowed a second baby. The authorities in Sichuan province estimate about 7,000 of those killed in the 12 May quake were only children.
Two immediate challenges that lie ahead for China are:
Up to 3 million tents are urgently needed to house an estimated 5 million people left homeless. These will then need to be replaced by temporary housing units (simple steel structures normally used by construction workers). (Two further aftershocks destroyed more than 420,000 houses over the weekend of the 24/25 May)
Large areas of China's Sichuan province are under threat from floods as ‘quake lakes’ have developed along rivers where the river has been blocked by debris from numerous landslides. More than 250,000 residents were evacuated from downstream areas as pressure built and the lake became increasingly unstable. Experts feared Tangjiashan lake, formed when a landslide blocked a river, could burst its barrier and deluge the area. Engineers and the military dug and blasted a drainage channel in order to lower the water level in the lake. At the time of writing, the Tangjiashan lake was draining away due to the successful efforts of the army in digging a drainage channel, but had flooded the abandoned town of Beichuan where 8,600 of the 13,000 residents were killed by the May 12 tremor, . For people of Beichuan this has brought extra anguish, as many of the earthquake victims were still buried in the rubble which has now been flooded and many possessions that people hoped to retrieve have now been flooded.
British Geology Survey event summary
“The epicentre was in the mountains of the Eastern Margin of Qing-Tibet Plateau at the northwest margin of the Sichuan Basin. The earthquake occurred as a result of motion on a northeast striking thrust fault that runs along the margin of the basin. The seismicity of central and eastern Asia is caused by the northward movement of the India plate at a rate of 5cm/year and its collision with Eurasia, resulting in the uplift of the Himalaya and Tibetan plateau and associated earthquake activity.
“This deformation also results in the extrusion of crustal material from the high Tibetan Plateau in the west towards the Sichuan Basin and south-eastern China. China frequently suffers large and deadly earthquakes. In August 1933 a magnitude 7.5 earthquake about 90 km northeast of today's earthquake destroyed the town of Diexi and surrounding villages, and caused many landslides, some of which dammed the rivers.”
Guardian Interactive: Why earthquakes happen
BBC Interactive: How earthquakes happen
Guardian Interactive: The Sichuan province earthquake
BBC Mapping the earthquake zone
Cyclone Nargis made landfall in Burma (Myanmar) on 03 May. A cyclone of the North Indian Ocean basin, it was one of the very deadliest meteorological hazards of all time. Reaching a maximum wind speed of 215 km/hr, Nargis made Category 4 on the Saffir-Simpson scale. At least 78,000 people have died as a result of the cyclone, and another 56,000 people are still, while millions of people have had their lives ruined by the hazard.
The UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs state that nearly 134,000 people have been are confirmed dead or missing, with 2 to 3 million people left destitute and homeless by the worst disaster in Burma’s history. Five regions – Yangon, Ayeyarwady, Bago, Mon and Kayin were declared disaster areas by the Burmese government. Many settlements were very badly effected – Labutta, in Ayeyarwady, lost 75% of its buildings.
But the long-tern effects are even more worrying in a region that is desperately poor. GDP per capita in Burma is just $1600 (150th in the world) and Human Development Index ranking is 132. People are hugely dependent on farming to make a living – but burst sewage mains have caused the landscape to flood with waste in some places, ruining the rice crop. Extensive salt deposits left behind by seawater further threaten the area’s agriculture and food supplies
Politics and aid
Aid agencies say much-needed food and equipment did not get to those who needed it in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone. This was because Burma’s military junta (the army seized control in 1962) failed to transport and distribute supplies. Worse, they refused to give access to experienced western aid workers who could have helped save lives.
Burma’s military rulers have pursued a policy of remaining isolated from the rest of the world (their dictatorial rule has brought international condemnation, most recently in 2007, when soldiers opened fire on monks who were peacefully protesting against the government).
Since the cyclone hit, the world has repeatedly offered to help Burma reduce the scale of this disaster. Getting emergency aid to people who have lost their homes and incomes is essential if famine is to be avoided in the months ahead. With more heavy rain – and possible further cyclones on the way - survivors who are living in wretched conditions are fearful of a further wave of deaths from disease (dengue fever, malaria, cholera and dysentery).
Yet United Nations aid workers have, at the time of writing, so far only been able to reach 270,000 of the 2.5m cyclone survivors. According to another BBC report (13 May), the Burmese government has been wary of giving access to outsiders: “Immediate offers of airlifts and naval support from as far afield as the United States were greeted with hesitation. And even when shipments were grudgingly accepted, government spokesmen tried to insist that while aid was welcome, foreign aid workers were not and the Burmese army could manage without them.”
The US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has even accused Burma of causing the loss of tens of thousands of lives by hindering international cyclone relief efforts and denying entry into the country. Although Burma’s state run media has recently condemned many of the media reports of the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis. An article in a state daily accused "self-seekers" of faking video footage of the destruction - and foreign media of using it to harm Burma's image. (BBC 06 June 2008)
More than two weeks after Nargis struck, Burma finally agreed to accept nearly 300 medical personnel from its close neighbours in the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). But aid workers from outside ASEAN will still only be granted visas on a case-by-case basis (ABC news) – which will inevitably result in less lives being saved than if all offers of foreign aid were accepted.
The Guardian newspaper (07 May 2008) summed it all up with the headline: “How geography and politics made a cyclone so destructive."
How geography and politics made a cyclone so destructive
“A glance at a map of Burma hints at the problem at the root of the disaster, the scale of which the country's junta and the international community is only now beginning to grapple with. The land in the Irrawaddy delta, which bore the brunt of Cyclone Nargis, is criss-crossed with rivers and tributaries. The delta is so low-lying that it is marked on the map by almost as much blue as green. Home to an estimated 7 million of Burma's 53 million people, the delta, on the tip of the country's western coast, is accessible only by boat at the best of times. Nearly 2 million of the densely packed area's inhabitants live on land that is less than 16ft (5 metres) above sea level, leaving them extremely vulnerable.
“It was this area that Cyclone Nargis battered first and hardest when it made landfall on Friday night. Of the 22,000 who were reported dead by the junta yesterday, as many as 21,793 were from the Irrawaddy delta. Another 40,695 of the 41,000 missing also came from the area. Meteorologists said Nargis, which included winds of up to 120mph, whipped up the seas into a 13ft surge that washed for miles over the flat, rice-growing belt. Most of the victims were said to have been killed by one monstrous wave. The flimsy bamboo houses of the coastal villages stood little chance. The junta did issue warnings, but they were too little, too late, and few would have been prepared for a cyclone of such ferocity. Witnesses have told of at least 16 villages that have completely disappeared when the floodwaters receded, leaving behind a layer of mud and sludge.
“Apart from the cost in lives and homes, is the agricultural loss to the fertile delta - considered Burma's rice bowl. Once the world's top rice producer, the country now produces 400,000 tonnes for export a year, and with the devastation wrought by Nargis, there are fears the rice paddies have been flooded with saltwater, hitting Burma hard at a time when rice shortages across the world have seen prices rocket.”
Source: The Guardian 07 May 2008
In pictures: Chile volcano erupts BBC 03 May 2008
Telegraph photos of the Chaiten eruption
NASA Earth Observatory pages. Chile's Chaiten Volcano Erupts
China’s Sichuan earthquake
BBC articles and resources: Sichuan earthquake
General China earthquake stories. The Guardian
China earthquake animation. Financial Times
China earthquake. BBC videos
Earthquake images. Financial Times
Interactive: Sichuan earthquake: one month on. Guardian 09 June 2008
USGS analysis of the hazard event - EASTERN SICHUAN, CHINA
China quake 'worse than expected' BBC 14 May 2008
China’s death toll nudges 15,000 Financial Times 14 May 2008
China quake toll 'to top 50,000' BBC 15 May 2008
NASA Earth Observatory Lake Formation in the Aftermath of Magnitude 7.9 Earthquake
Chinese troops tackle quake lake BBC 26 May 2008
Aftershocks demolish China homes BBC 27 May 2008
Mass evacuation from quake lake BBC 28 May 2008
Setback for China quake rescuers BBC 01 June 2008
Baby offer for earthquake parents BBC 06 June 2008
China begins draining quake lake BBC 07 June 2008
China quake lake 'now draining' BBC 10 June 2008
In pictures: Chinese town engulfed BBC 10 June 2008
Wikipedia: Moment magnitude scale
BBC resources and articles: Cyclone Nargis
Burma cyclone: Mapping the aftermath. BBC
Burma Cyclone videos. BBC
BBC reports on Burma and its politics 2007 onwards
NASA Cyclone Nargis
NASA Earth Observatory.Heavy Rain from Cyclone Nargis
NASA Earth Observatory Floodwaters in Burma
UNOSAT Satellite Maps of Myanmar
Mangrove loss 'put Burma at risk' BBC 06 May 2008
How geography and politics made a cyclone so destructive. Guardian 07 May 2008
UN calls for Burma aid corridor BBC 13 May 2008
Much bigger aid effort needed for Myanmar. UN News Centre 14 May 2008
Burma policy costs lives, says US BBC 31 May 2008
Burmese still lack aid a month on 02 June 2008
Burma hits out at cyclone reports. BBC 06 June 2008
Comparison of events
The world and its media are playing the dictators' game. Guardian 21 May 2008
Two disasters, contrasting reactions BBC 13 May 2008
Written by Dr Simon Oakes, a senior A-level examiner and teacher at Bancroft’s School.
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