Global Trends by Martin Khor
Monday 4 April 2011
Disasters abound as climate talks resume
A flood disaster in Southern Thailand is the
backdrop to resumed global climate talks in Bangkok,
while many other countries face natural calamities and Japan
struggles to cope with its triple crises.
As a new round of global climate negotiations
under the United Nations start this week in Bangkok
(the first session after the Cancun
conference last December), the evidence of natural disasters is all
Even as the effects of Japan’s
triple crisis of earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear disaster continue,
newspapers in Bangkok are filled with
stories and images of disastrous flooding in Southern
Thailand that have inundated towns and villages and affected
a million people.
Last October, when China
hosted one of the climate sessions, there was also major flooding in
Hainan when the meeting took place, giving a somber reminder
of what is at stake.
These natural disasters are visiting almost all countries in one form
or other. While some countries are hit by the more dramatic earthquakes
and huge forest fires that also invade cities, many more countries have
suffered floods caused by extraordinarily high rainfall, that wreak
just as much damage to millions of people.
In the climate talks, most of the focus and energy have been on mitigation,
or how to prevent climate change through emissions reduction. Adaptation,
or how to cope with the effects of climate change, has been a “poor
cousin”, a complaint often made by developing countries.
For example, much of the funds spent so far on climate action has gone
to mitigation, with far too little for adaptation activities.
The spate of serious natural disasters over the past two years should
change this order of priorities. The effects of climate change and
natural disasters are being felt acutely now, causing loss of lives
and havoc to housing, urban buildings and infrastructure, agriculture,
food supply, water resources, schooling, and the everyday lives of millions.
Not enough global attention and resources have been given to these “adaptation”
problems which have already risen to crisis proportions.
While it is important to prevent further climate change through emission-reducing
measures and technology, it is even more urgent that governments, the
United Nations and other agencies pour their attention to the reduction
and crisis management of disasters, and to the rehabilitation and reconstruction
that needs to take place after disasters strike.
where an earthquake killed over 200,000 and devastated the capital city
more than a year ago, thousands are still living in tents, a cholera
outbreak took place, much of the debris has yet to be cleared, and reconstruction
has not yet got into full swing.
While there are UN agencies that do commendable work on disaster reduction
and management, there is no adequate global system for getting funds
that can be used to go to the immediate help of countries affected by
After each disaster, funds are raised to help the particular country.
This is far from ideal, as help and relief cannot wait, and moreover
if there is “aid fatigue”, then the countries recently affected will
not get the resources needed.
Thus the global system to help countries in disaster reduction, management,
relief and reconstruction, has to be built up, the sooner the better.
Even a major developed country that is so organized like Japan has been
unable to get to grips with the effects of its triple crises. This is
understandable, given the enormity of its tragedy, deserving the deep
sympathy of the world.
The death toll is now put at 25,000. Many thousands are still missing,
and the rubble of broken houses and buildings still characterize many
former towns and villages.
Most glaring of all is the inability so far to bring the six reactors
in the nuclear power plant in Fukushima
under control. Radioactivity continues to escape in significant amounts
through the air and through contaminated water.
Huge water pumps are being brought from the United States to pour water onto the
reactors and the pools containing the spent fuel rods. On hindsight,
this should have been done sooner.
nuclear disaster has sparked lively discussions worldwide on the dangers
of nuclear power.
The issues include how the nuclear plants are susceptible to accidents
and natural disasters as well as terrorist attacks, how difficult it
is to manage an incident once it has occurred, and how
problematic it is to get rid of or store radioactive
waste, including the spent fuel rods which are now a central part of
the Fukushima crisis.
The crisis revealed by Fukushima (and
earlier by Three Mile Island and Chernobyl)
is affecting public perception about nuclear dangers and safety. A
summit of world leaders is being planned by the international atomic
energy agency to review the situation.
Meanwhile the ordinary public is increasingly concerned, if not alarmed,
by the succession of reports about contaminated water, air and food
not only around Fukushima but also other parts of Japan. The air
and water contamination is also beginning to be detected in other countries.
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