Global warming kills

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Aug 22 09:26:21 MDT 1999

The Independent (London), Nov. 15, 1998


LENGTH: 1469 words

HEADLINE: Focus: The year of the flood; Rising waters are causing
unprecedented death and destruction. And humanity must share the blame


It has been a frightful year for floods, but, if we are to believe the
weathermen, we have not seen anything yet. For as global warming takes
hold, forests are felled and rivers are "tamed", they say that the waters
will rise faster, further, and more frequently. This alarming prospect - in
the week that has seen Honduras counting the cost of Hurricane Mitch,
officially described as the western hemisphere's worst-ever disaster -
threatens to redefine the concept of a natural catastrophe. It means that
Acts of God are, at the very least, aided and abetted by humanity.

Certainly there have been plenty of them so far this year: the Central
America and Honduras tragedy, which looks like claiming the lives of over
20,000 people, and which has made a million homeless, is just one of a
deluge of floods. In July, China's Yangtze River produced its worst
inundation for nearly half a century, killing 2,000 and displacing 14
million people. The same month, floodwaters submerged two-thirds of
Bangladesh and - unlike earlier, briefer disasters - continued to cover the
country for months. Also in July three tidal waves engulfed Papua Guinea's
north- west coast, killing another 2,000.

In August, 100,000 people were made homeless in Nigeria when a dam burst.
And in September severe flooding hit Chaipas in Mexico. Earlier this year,
mudslides buried two towns near Vesuvius in Italy's Campania, killing 160,
while New Zealand suffered its worst inundation in a century and five
central European countries were hit too. Britain has also suffered, if on a
less disastrous scale, as rivers reached their highest levels in over a
century both at Easter and last month, inundating thousands of homes and
claiming lives.

In all, according to the Brussels-based Centre For Research On The
Epidemiology of Disasters, there have been 96 so far this year in 55
countries from Uzbekistan to Chad, the Yemen to Nepal, and Peru to French
Polynesia. Patrick McCully, campaign director of the International Rivers
Network in San Francisco says: "I can't ever remember a year with more
extreme floods in more places."

Earlier this autumn, a report from the US's National Centre for Atmospheric
Research in Boulder, Colorado, concluded that floods have indeed increased
over the last quarter of a century. A report from Amsterdam's University's
Institute For Environmental Studies shows that rivers have been fuller, and
flooding has increased, in Europe, the United States and Asia since the
1960s. The frequency of floods in Italy has almost doubled in the last
quarter of a century; the Rhine at Karlsruhe in Germany has risen 23ft
above flood level 10 times since 1977, compared with only three in the
whole of the rest of the century and Bangladesh has been experiencing
catastrophic inundations every three or four years since the early 1980s.

HIGHER rainfall is partly to blame, says the Amsterdam report: all three
countries have got wetter over the 20th century. And global warming will
make things worse. "As greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the
atmosphere," it warns, "we should expect an increase in rainfall and river
flooding events." It adds it will be "difficult, if not impossible" to
prevent them.

Scientists expect more rain in many parts of the globe as the world heats
up, partly because warmer air can hold more water. Rainfall is predicted to
increase for example over north-western Europe, including Britain in
winter, and around the equator and in monsoon countries.

And the rain is expected to be more intense. "Even if the number of wet
days do not increase, it will rain more heavily on them," says James Walsh
of the Meteorological Office. This is important because the harder the rain
falls, the more runs off the ground to cause floods. Global warming is also
predicted to increase the number and force of storms and hurricanes and to
raise sea levels, inundating coastal areas. One-third of Bangladesh is
expected to disappear beneath the waves, and some low-lying island nations,
like the Maldives or Tuvalu, may vanish altogether.

Last week Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott told an international
conference in Buenos Aires - held to draw up ways of implementing cuts in
emissions of the gases that cause global warning - that Hurricane Mitch and
the floodings in China were "warnings that the world ignores at its peril".
But global warming is only part of this developing story, for it takes more
than rainfall to make a flood. Hurricane Mitch may have been the
fourth-most powerful hurricane ever to have spawned in the Caribbean, but
it had lost much of its force by the time it hit Honduras and had been
officially downgraded to a "tropical storm".

Yet the United States government has described the destruction it caused as
"the worst disaster we have seen in this hemisphere". The rains caused
disaster because the mountains it fell on have been cleared of forests and
built on. Trees are vital safety valves, trapping the rain by breaking its
fall to the ground and allowing it slowly to percolate into the earth (each
tree of one mountain species can hold 400 gallons of water in its roots).
When they are cleared, the water runs straight off bare hillsides, causing
floods. Eroded soil is carried down the rivers, raising their beds and
making it more likely that they will burst their banks.

It is much the same story in many of the sites of this year's floods.
Forests have been felled over 80 per cent of the Yangtze basin. Floods in
Bangladesh have increased enormously because of deforestation in the
Himalayas, where at least 40 per cent of the trees have been cut down in
the past 40 years. Before the felling, Bangladesh suffered catastrophic
floods about only once a century. The mud slides in Italy were also brought
about by deforestation and illegal building.

BUILDING on slopes increases the rate at which the water runs off, and
building on flood plains increases the toll of tragedy. The inquiry into
Britain's Easter floods was told that half of all the houses built in the
country since the Second World War have been "imprudently" sited on areas
prone to flood. Poverty and population growth also magnify the effects of
disasters - one reason why the toll from floods in poor countries is so
much greater than in industrialised ones. People have to live in flimsy
housing on fragile hillsides and vulnerable shores and riverbanks.

Efforts to prevent inundations by "taming" rivers, straightening them out
and building high embankments, have made things worse: such canalisation
makes the water flow faster. In 1926, the US Army Corps of Engineers
claimed that such work had made the Mississippi "safe from serious flood
damage". The very next year floods made 700,000 people homeless. Another
Mississippi flood, in 1993, broke two-thirds of the river's artificial

In Europe, 90 per cent of the upper Rhine has now been cut off from its
flood plains, and now flows twice as fast as before. It flooded
disastrously in 1993 and 1995. There are now attempts to restore some of
its original wetlands. Every one per cent increase in these natural sponges
is thought to reduce flooding by up to four per cent.

It's a small step away from the rush towards increasing disaster, but as we
continue to pollute the air, fell trees and canalise rivers we are entitled
to predict: "Apres nous, les deluges."


April: Storms leave more than 3,000 square miles of England and Wales
flooded. Many rivers in Midlands, Thames area, East Anglia and Wales reach
highest levels in 150 years.

May: 118 killed in mudslides in the Campania region east of Naples.
Fast-moving streams of lava-like sludge, exacerbated by rampant
deforestation and illegal building, are blamed.

July: 2,000 killed in Papua New Guinea after three 30ft-high tidal waves -
caused by offshore earthquake - hit the coast.

August: In China some 3,000 die, 14 million are relocated, and 5.6 million
homes are destroyed after Yangtze basin floods. Deforestation and man- made
dykes cited as factors. In Bangladesh 700 dead and two-thirds of capital
Dhaka under water. Ruined crops, homes and roads affect 20 million.

September: Hurricane Georges hits Dominican Republic at 110mph, leaving
100,000 homeless and almost entire population of 8 million without power.
Mexico hit, and across the Caribbean and at Florida Keys, 468 die.

October: Up to 100,000 flee floods in the western part of Nigeria after
gates of a hydro-electric dam open. Resulting floods wash away up to 70
villages downstream. In Britain 12 die as Severn and Wye rivers flood.

November: 8,000 killed in Honduras and 2,000 in Nicaragua as Hurricane
Mitch strikes at 180mph. Research by Mark Rowe

Copyright© 1999, LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All Rights

Louis Proyect

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