Which natural hazards brought disaster – and to who, where and why?
Summer 2009 brought a cluster of global natural hazard events – several of which materialised into major disasters.
Some were hydrometeorological, others geophysical in origin. A range of populated countries at different stages of economic development – and thus with a varying capacity to cope – were affected.
Here we summarise some of the main events and their impacts.
Hydrometeorological hazards of summer 2009
Geophysical hazards of summer 2009
Practice essay question
During Summer 2009, India suffered from a massive rain deficit and its driest June for 83 years. The monsoon rain – an intense burst of seasonal precipitation that is a distinctive feature of some tropical climates such as India’s – usually arrives in June, bringing much-needed water to thirsty states such as Uttar Pradesh. Farmers depend on June-September showers to irrigate 60% of their farmland
However, the arrival of monsoon rain was delayed in some parts of the country by nearly two months in 2009. Usually, the season begins around the first of June. But by mid-July, ominous newspaper headlines such as “India prays for rain as water wars break out” (Observer, 12 July 2009) began to appear.
The Indian government’s Ministry of Earth Sciences (India Meteorological Department) estimates that cumulative seasonal rainfall for the country as a whole during 01 June to 09 August 2009 was 28% below the Long Period Average (LPA). Out of 36 meteorological sub-divisions, rainfall was below average for 27, most of them quite seriously. In the worst-hit state of Uttar Pradesh, rainfall was down by two-thirds and some farmers were forced to sell their cattle.
The drought brought other serious impacts, including:
Food prices rose by 10% in India due to crop failures that hit winter-sown rapeseed and wheat especially badly. Though rainfall improved in some areas during July, it came too late for many crops, which require a constant sprinkling of rain throughout the hot summer.
The government was forced to raise the minimum purchase price of rice, an important staple crop that was also badly-hit. World prices are now expected to rise.
The weak monsoon damaged the sugarcane crop, causing New York stock exchange sugar prices to rise to their highest level in nearly three decades – once again showing the effects of the drought beyond India’s borders in an interconnected world.
The half of India’s 1.1 billion population that is employed in agriculture experienced financial stress, with some farming smallholders facing ruin.
The farming population also saw an increase in suicides.
Low reservoir levels meant hydropower generation was reduced (it accounts for a quarter of India's generation capacity of about 150,000 megawatts).
One reservoir, Bhopal’s Upper Lake, shrank in size from 38 sq km to 5 sq km and the local population of 1.8 million people were rationed to 30 minutes of water supply every three days.
A major strain was placed on the national economy: agriculture accounts for 18 percent of the country's total gross domestic product. Crop failures may end up costing a vital percentage point in GDP.
Could the disaster have been worse?
Impacts would have been much worse if India had not modernised in recent years. Now the country is more well-prepared for drought than in the past. For instance, the government stockpiles food during years of bumper harvests, meaning it had some emergency supplies in reserve this year.
The Indian economy is also becoming less dependent on agriculture over time and as a result less people are directly affected than in the past, when more than 70% worked in agriculture. Industrial output in June 2009 actually surged to its highest rate in two years, greatly helping the economy. India’s capacity to cope with drought has increased. The nation has become more resilient.
Some communities also received outside help during the drought from international organisation Water Aid. In Bhopal’s Arjun Nagar slum, a borewell was drilled down 115 metres to provide water for 100 families.
Water wars: a deadly turn of events
In July, the Observer newspaper reported that the water shortage was setting neighbour against neighbour. The following extracts show people locked in a desperate fight for survival:
(Extract 1) It was a little after 8pm when the water started flowing through the pipe running beneath the dirt streets of Bhopal's Sanjay Nagar slum. After days without a drop of water, the Malviya family were the first to reach the hole they had drilled in the pipe, filling what containers they had as quickly as they could. Within minutes, three of them were dead, hacked to death by angry neighbours who accused them of stealing water. In Mumbai, which at other times has experienced heavy rainfall and flooding, authorities cut the water supply by 30% when levels in the lakes serving the city ran perilously low.
(Extract 2) In Bhopal, where 100,000 people rely solely on the water tankers that shuttle across the city, fights break out regularly. In the Pushpa Nagar slum, the arrival of the first tanker for two days prompted a frantic scramble, with men jostling women and children in their determination to get to the precious liquid first. A few children crawled beneath the tanker in the hope of catching the spillage.
(Extract 3) Neighbours of the Malviyas family cluster around the hole in the street outside the house where Jeevan Malviya lived with his wife, Gyarasi, their son, Raju, 18, and their four other children. It was the evening of 13 May, said Sunita Bai, a female relative: a local man, Dinu, thought that the family had blocked the pipe to stop the water flowing further down the hill. He and a group of friends slapped Gyarasi, 35; Raju tried to stop him. Someone produced a sword and, a few minutes later, the Malviyas lay dying. "We were too afraid to do anything," said a woman who gave her name as Shanno. "It is a terrible thing, that people should be fighting over water.
Source: Observer newspaper (12 July 2009)
2. California’s wildfires
At the end of August 2009, fierce wildfires broke out across California. The state has excellent levels of preparation for such emergencies and residents of 10,000 homes were immediately ordered to evacuate by State Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who described the blazes as “totally out of control”. Evacuation centres were set up at local schools. 2,000 fire-fighters equipped with spraying fire retardant were deployed to try and contain fires which destroyed 170 sq km of forest.
Although a state of emergency had been announced, three people who ignored warnings to evacuate were badly burned. "There were people that did not listen and there were three people that got burned and got critically injured because they did not listen," said ex-actor Schwarzenneger. Two fire-fighters also died while tackling blazes north of Los Angeles.
Although the financial damages will doubtless prove be very high, California’s excellent coping capacity – based both on its financial reserves and long experience of dealing with this type of natural hazard - meant that minimal lives were actually lost.
3. Typhoon Morakot
Typhoon Morakot hit south-east Asia in August 2009, killing nearly 500 people. With damages of around $5 billion US, it has been described as the deadliest typhoon to ever have hit Taiwan – while also being a major cause of disaster in the four neighbouring countries of Japan, China, South Korea and the Philippines.
The storm produced nearly 3000 mm of precipitation – more than three times the annual rainfall of London! Its impacts included:
Widespread damage in China, leaving eight people dead and causing $1.4 billion in damages.
Severe flooding in the northern Philippines leading to the deaths of 26 people.
Catastrophic agricultural losses throughout the region.
The extreme amount of rain brought by Typhoon Morakot also triggered enormous mudslides. These natural hazards are categorised as geophysical events and were a secondary effect of the typhoon. In Taiwan, the entire village of Shiao Lin was lost to a mudslide, killing over 400 people.
Between June and August, a total of 17 typhoons made landfall in the Pacific region but Morakot had the deadliest track by a very large margin.
1. The Shiao Lin mudslide
In August 2009, a major mudslide triggered by Typhoon Morakot buried the entire village of Shia Lin (or Hsiao-lin) killing nearly 500 people (Guardian, 14 August 2009). According to the newspaper:
The entire village was lost.
Victims were swept 2 km by the massive mudslides.
The typhoon hit at around 6am local time - when many householders were sleeping and unprepared.
The Guardian further reported that: “Many families did not want it (the mudslide) excavated because they feared damage to bodies would prevent victims from reaching the afterlife, local media reported. The county chief, Yang Chiu-hsing, said a memorial park would be built on the site.”
A particularly vivid account appeared in the Wall Street Journal (15 August 2009), reporting an unusual factor that contributed to increased tragic loss of life for this village.
“Shiao Lin village was small, with around 1,300 officially registered residents, and a single main street with an elementary school, grocery store and a noodle shop. Like residents of many villages in Taiwan's mountainous interior, Shiao Lin's population was getting on in years. Many of the young had headed off to cities to find work, leaving the older generations to tend the small farms that produced crops of papayas, bananas, ginger and bamboo shoots. But Saturday, August 8, was Father's Day in Taiwan, and the village was filled with more younger people than usual, home to pay their respects to their fathers and grandfathers.”
The video clips show how the rescue effort was hampered from a combination of reasons ranging from the emergency services not being able to get through blocked roads, to lack of man power and equipment.
Clip shows the destruction after the mud slide
2. Indonesian earthquake
At the start of September, a major geophysical disaster occurred in the Pacific Rim of Fire. At least 32 people were killed and dozens injured when a powerful magnitude-7.5 earthquake struck 60 kms off the southern coast of Java in Indonesia.
Like the Shiao Lin disaster, mass movement – a secondary geophysical hazard triggered by the primary event – was responsible for the worst losses of life. According to the Guardian (02 September 2009), many of the victims were killed in a landslide at Jeblong village in Java.
Others people died when poorly-built houses and other buildings collapsed. The worst-hit urban area was Tasikmalaya, a town in west Java about 150 kms from the earthquake epicentre.
The Guardian reported that the Pacific tsunami warning centre in Hawaii issued a tsunami warning soon after the quake struck, but withdrew it about 30 minutes later. Unlike the earthquake that struck the region on 26 December 2004 - generating the tsunami that killed 230,000 – this latest earthquake thankfully failed to have a similar effect.
'Explain why some natural hazards result in greater losses of life than others'
Advice from a senior examiner
This is a broad question so you need to plan and structure your answer carefully. Major themes that you could use as paragraph headings include:
The type of hazard Hydrometeorological and geophysical hazards can have varying strengths and potentials for disaster. They differ according to their strength, speed of onset, time of onset, severity and duration. Some trigger secondary effects such as California’s fires (that follow from drought) tsunamis and mass movement events (recently seen in Taiwan following a cyclone), all depending on local conditions.
Disaster vulnerability This varies according to how populated an area is. Typhoon Morakot made landfall in some densely populated places in contrast to 16 other major typhoons during summer 2009 – thus it caused the greatest loss of life. Because it was Father’s Day, there were many visitors at Shiao Lin village when the tragic mudslide happened.
Capacity to cope Some places are better-prepared to deal with disasters. California’s financial resources mean it has plenty of fire-fighters standing by when fires break out during drought. People are easily warned using mass media and evacuations can run smoothly. Therefore the loss of life is minimised.
Complied by Dr Simon Oakes, Principal Examiner for Edexcel’s “Global Challenges” (AS Unit 1) paper.
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