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 around us.

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.

In Haiti, 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 disasters.

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.

The Fukushima 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.