Natural Water Disasters

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No natural disaster in out lifetime generated more powerful and destructive images than did the tsunami that struck Asia and Africa in December of 2004. That single event, in dramatic fashion, illustrated both the power of water and the vulnerability of coastal and river basin populations in the absence of early warning and disaster preparation and response capability.

The story that day was not how many died, but rather why they had died and how well would the survivors, well, survive. Early warning systems did not exist, infrastructure was ill conceived, communication systems were wholly inadequate, safe havens were non existent, and that’s just the short list. Long term impact on quantity and quality of water, how best to prevent secondary epidemics of water borne diseases, destruction of what infrastructure had existed, homelessness, abandonment of property, environmental losses, and economic, social and political impact remain to be tabulated.

What the Tsunami of 2004 did do was to greatly expand awareness that water borne disasters are not inconsequential. Too much water and too little water are not a good thing. Natural disasters in 1999 accounted for over 50,000 deaths worldwide. That loss is not shared equally. 93% of the 1999 loss of life was from the developing world, with only 7% from developed nations. And a single disaster in a developing nation can result in 10% reductions in Gross National Product (GNP).

There were 2200 water related disasters in the last decade of the 20th century. 30% occurred in Asia, 29% Africa, 20% in the Americas, 13% in Europe and 3% in Oceania. 89% of the natural disasters were water related including floods (50%), drought (11%) and water related epidemics (28%). Only 9% were due to landslides, earthquakes or avalanche, and just 2% from famine. Economic losses from water related disasters approximate 20% of GNP. (Table 8.1)

Drivers for disaster include national conflict, weather events, deficient economic, social and political policy, and human error. The fact that water planning has been largely non-integrated has amplified the risks and the population vulnerability. The number of natural catastrophes has been steadily growing for a half century with rises in frequency and intensity of floods, earthquakes, windstorms and volcanic eruptions. Economic losses in 1999 were pegged at 70 billion, up from 30 billion in 1990. Population impacted rose from 147 million to 211 million during the same period.

The majority of the damage has been on the water/weather side, not from geologic events which have been stable. Water events appear to be tied to changing weather, changed weather to global warming, global warming to CO2 emissions and to carbonization of our atmosphere. A few facts: In 2004, global emission of carbon exceeded 7 billion metric tons, and is expected to rise to 10.5 billion metric tons by 2029 and 14 billion metric toms by 2054. The US alone accounted for 20% of the total emissions and 34% of the industrial CO2 emissions. In fact, the average American in 2004, through his or her actions, generated 12,000 pounds of CO2. All of this output over the past 100 years of our industrial age has caught up with our atmosphere. (Table 8.2)   In 1780, the CO2 levels in the earth’s atmosphere were only 280 parts per million (ppm). Over the next 150 years levels rose 35 ppm to 315ppm. But by 1975, we were up to 330 ppm of CO2, by 1995 had jumped to 360 ppm, and by 2005 were at 380 ppm. By 2050, we are expected to double pre-industrialization levels, rising to 500 ppm. Such levels are difficult, if not impossible to reverse, and the negative impact on weather stability at that level is assured. Asia, as we saw recently, is especially vulnerable. 93% of the flood caused deaths (228,000) from 1987 to 1996 occurred in Asia. Of the people affected by natural disasters, floods accounted for 65% of those affected but only 15% of deaths. Famine, in contrast, accounted for only 20% affected, but was far more deadly, accounting for 42% of deaths between 1973 and 1997.

In addition to weather, other risk factors are on the rise. Populations in flood plains are growing in numbers and density. Water shed use is increasingly compromised, lowering our capacity to absorb a portion of the water force impact. Poor people are migrating to vulnerable population centers. Urbanization and deforestation decrease water storage capacity and magnify water volume, speed, soil and waste transport and destructive effect. Dry areas can be especially vulnerable, as preparation is minimal, and obstruction to water flow non-existent. Floods also can be useful, when directed, and away from vulnerable human populations, since they transport nutrients and species as part of important ecological cycles.

If floods are the most visible, dramatic, and common water related disaster, droughts are the most destructive to life. 280,000 deaths from famine in the past decade is a sad number to contemplate. The 1991/1992 drought in sub-Saharan Africa impacted 110 million people over some 7 million square kilometers. Looking back, rather than forward we had 15 major global droughts in the past 40 years, resulting in 1,760,789 deaths and some 30 trillion (US$) in losses. (Table 8.3) Combine drought with conflict, deforestation, overgrazing and human migration, and the human misery index explodes. Trend lines show progressive vulnerability with the current 1 billion living in water scarce areas expected to rise an additional 140% to 2.4 billion by 2025, affecting 30% of the global population.

The lasting impact of these natural disasters derives from their 3 prong attack on economics, environment, and social structure. Just looking at the economics can be sobering. The 1990 drought in Zimbabwe, recent floods in Mozambique and the 2000 drought in Brazil decreased GNP by 11% and 23% in the first two and cut annual projected growth in halve in the third. Integrated water resource management mitigates the triple risks and addresses uncertainty in a proactive way.

Managing risk is about knowing the risk, defining and implementing measures to reduce the risk, and spreading the risk through financial systems like insurance. The cost of such instruments decrease as good policies and planning eliminate that portion of the risk under human control. For example, in flood risk reduction there are structural and non-structural adjustments that can decrease risk. Structural change may include construction of dams, channels, flood ways and flood reservoirs, flood dikes, early warning systems, stockpiling of supplies, and temporary shelters. A non-structural approach might be land zone planning within natural flood plains. Approaches and contributions are somewhat colored by one’s position and point of view. If you are the WHO, there is a focus on emergency related health hazards. If you are the UN World Food Program (WFP) post-disaster food relief and rehabilitation support is your likely emphasis. If you are the UN Development Program (UNDP) disaster avoidance, prevention and preparedness are your center points. If you are the World Bank, unique financial instruments that mitigate risk and define water resource variability forecasting are special areas of emphasis. And if you are the Global Water Partnership, it’s all about Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM). Similarly on a local level each individual and leader has something concrete to contribute. The challenge has been to place them at the same table and keep them there long enough to effect change and get ahead of the curve.

This is not to ignore political realities. Tust and Netanyahu in “Conflict and Cooperation on Trans-boundary Water Resources” in 1998 put it this way, “Politicians have the incentive to balance allocations of budgets in a way that preserves political support. Political sustainability is important, and security and stability, together with distributional goals, make up important aspects of political agendas and are often given higher priority than efficiency. Losses to society, and the micro costs imposed on the public could therefore be substantial, but are often disregarded. In the political environment therefore, policy often responds to shorter-term concern than to the long-term consequences to society.”

For those in charge, beyond the immediate threat of a water disaster event, there is the issue of restoring water access post disaster. For those populations dependent on a single source of water or a single route of water delivery, the risks associated with interruption are severe and immediate. Interruption also carries high likelihood of introduction of contaminants into opened systems. Pollution and salination of fresh water bodies can be expected short term and groundwater contamination from soil based pollutants is often a long term issue.

The vulnerable are often poor. Lack of planning means a disaster immediately tips things over the edge. It’s a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Substandard housing, fragile infrastructure, along a vulnerable flood plain, combined with marginal nutrition, and health, make human tragedy a likely outcome. 39% of the disasters that created food emergencies were a function of human induced rather than natural disasters. This means that at least 4 of 10 food related emergencies could have been mitigated by better human preparedness and management. Failing to do so costs lives, expands regional tensions and insures societal instability.

Increasingly, the impact of inaction is measurable in lives lost, lost GNP, lost growth, lost development, number of lives exposed and affected, and percent of disasters that are human versus naturally induced. Such measures help make the case for action rather than inaction and provide predictive trend lines that forecast the extent of the risk and instigate dialogue as to potential causes such as climactic changes and expanding population growth in vulnerable coastal areas.

Who is responsible makes a big difference. In smaller, more traditional settings, users have historically been hands on involved in all types of water issues including climactic and economic. But as population and support systems expand, they become more complex and costly, causing responsibility and control to shift to government. Now we are witnessing active exploration of public/private coalitions and a responsibility shift in some locations for day-to-day operations to outsourced services under the control of the private sector. Risk management for natural and man made disasters, often falls between the cracks. Clearly when it comes to threats that are unpredictable and invisible, there is a tendency to defer responsibility and favor to real time risk based planning and intervention.

A special challenge exists in trans-boundary areas that are politically unstable. An area such as post-Soviet Central Asia faces stark choices. On one level there is both a risk of natural water disasters that is quite obvious and uncontested, as well as acknowledged standing political tension, even without injecting the complex issue of sustained development. Flipped on its side however, Integrated Water Resource Management, instituting management of the risk of trans-boundary water disasters, provides a challenge that is definable, real and shared. A focused approach in this area not only serves the people but also can build trust equity and the will to take on challenges that are more sensitive and politically explosive.

The long and short of it is that risk of water related disasters is growing. Absent preparedness, the losses are complex and considerable, measured in human life and the loss of social, economic and environmental capital. Such disasters are increasingly magnified through human error, can occur out of nowhere, and generate highly discoordinate responses. Poor and marginalized populations are most often the victims with secondary down cycling of health status a predictable end effect. A decade ago, the emphasis was on the flood and drought itself. Today, the focus is more squarely on the people at risk and affected by these water related disasters.