21 August 2010
The Pakistan floods are severely affecting 20 million of that country's 180 million people. Pakistan is used to Monsoon rains and floods but this is not just a regular Monsoon event, it is the biggest flood in the nation's history. To put it into more familiar terms, let us imagine an equivalent tragedy in the UK, with has a population a third the size of Pakistan's. Ignoring our topography for the moment, we would have seen raging torrents surge from the Scottish and Welsh mountains and Northern England into Midlands rivers, Eastern plains and towards Southern England. By now, 250,000 homes would have been destroyed or damaged, with over 500 British people dead (it's already over 1500 in Pakistan). In Pakistan 20 million people are still without aid. Just imagine 7 million stranded UK citizens, including 2 million facing starvation.
Pakistan is already coping with around 1.7 million Afghan refugees. The UK is currently home to around 200,000 from many sources, 2% of the world's 10 million refugees. But the UK's economy is twenty times the size of Pakistan's in GDP terms (CIA world factbook, 2006). The UK is donating £30 million of emergency flood aid - high by international standards and deserving some praise - but this is only the cost of operating the Trident nuclear submarines for five days.
Pakistan's economy cannot cope with a tragedy of such a scale, which would even bring the UK to its knees and in search of international help. The suffering is sufficient reason for concerned human interest, but there is an even greater reason to monitor these sad events. The next few months may provide some indication of whether the world will act to minimise the risk of further extreme weather events - expected as the climate warms. Or whether we are watching a dress rehearsal of future - perhaps even European - tragedies being performed on the stage of Sindh, Baluchistan and Punjab.
Of course we don't expect the UK to ever experience such weather. We don't have the Himalayas channeling Monsoon water swiftly in one regional direction. We live in a rich country and expect that emergency plans are somehow ready for 'once in a century' events. We believe that families could quickly escape inundation by leaping into cars or trains to visit relatives or friends in safer areas. In the 'recovery phase' after a deluge we would expect UK health services to manage the health implications and our welfare system to support victims - who would eventually repair their homes, businesses and fields and reconstruct their lives. Not so in Pakistan of course, where for most people welfare is the solidarity of family and little else.
Our confidence is partly based on the belief that our Atlantic/European weather system will stay much the same as it is. This is now a dangerous, outdated idea. This summer, Poles experienced the worst floods in Polish history. Russians experienced their highest temperatures in recorded history with forests ablaze near Moscow, choking its citizens for weeks. When the global climate changes, local weather can change very, very quickly.
I don't claim that these weather events are firm evidence of human induced global warming - there is anyway enough evidence of that already - but their unprecedented scale should make every sensible government re-examine its climate protection plans. Sadly the new UK government may be burning its climate pledges as fast as the Russian forests. Heavily polluting new coal-fired power stations may yet be permitted, despite election pledges; the Sustainable Development Commission is already earmarked for abandonment and the government may be preparing to cut funds for responses to global disasters.
The Pakistan floods should be provoking an immediate reconvening of the delegations which attended the failed Copenhagen climate conference. From Pakistan to Poland and beyond, there is a need for urgency.
14 August 2010
The fires currently sweeping through Russia seem to me to be part of an apocalyptic vision: floods of Biblical proportions in Pakistan, fires burning large areas of Russia, devastating landslides in China's Gansu province, covering houses and streets with a metre-thick layer of sludge deposited by the flood waters. Despite our technological advances we seem unable accurately to predict these climactic occurrences or take adequate steps to prepare for them. If this is not climate change then it's a run of remarkable coincidences.
One thinks of Russia as a vast country, well able to cope with climactic events – but in reality Russia is struggling to contain hundreds of peat fires that are approaching cities and nuclear power stations with equal temerity. Suddenly the superpower looks very vulnerable – and so does its neighbour Europe. Russia is one of the world's largest producers and exporters of grain and Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, announced a temporary ban on export grains until at least the end of the year. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has cut its global wheat forecasts for 2010 due to the impact of poor weather and drought on crops in recent weeks. The price of wheat rose by 80 percent in little over a month and is likely to stay high as lower grain outputs are also predicted from Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Canada.
As well as its wheat, Russia (and Europe) is worried about the safety of its nuclear facilities as temperatures soar to 40C (104F) with little sign of relenting. Two nuclear sites have come under potential threat. Safety barriers and clearing surrounding land of any vegetation minimises the eventuality of fire entering a nuclear power plant. The greater danger comes from the unexpectedly high ambient heat, which can bring about sudden changes in a reactor's operation, like emergency shutdowns and problems with the supply of water used to cool the reactor. Power lines, which transmit electricity from the reactors to cities and towns are melting, which may also trigger emergency shutdowns. Nuclear expert Andrei Ozharovsky explains: "Damage caused by a transformer or breakdowns in power lines are a greater risk than the state nuclear operator is admitting. Such events cause emergency stopping of the reactor - as happened in Chernobyl when, after several attempts to switch the reactor off and on, the reactor was out of control."
There is concern too about the safety of Russia's nuclear design and production facility at Sarov, a closed town 220 miles east of Moscow. Emergency action was taken by Russian troops who dug a five-mile canal to protect the site. All explosive and radioactive material was removed. A defence ministry spokesman confirmed that weapons, artillery and missiles at a depot in Alabinsk, about 70 kilometres southwest of Moscow, had to be transferred to a secure site because of the danger posed by fires in the region.
Meanwhile, the elemental firestorms show their disdain for man-made limits in another way. Russia has always played down the danger remaining in the ground from the longer-lasting radioactive fall-out from the Chernobyl disaster, by shutting off those areas completely, so that the fall-out stays undisturbed in the ground. This is not stopping the wild-fires, which rampage through any barriers, suspending radioactive material high in the air and in the smoke clouds above the raging conflagration, to be borne away by the wind, ready to fall who knows where, when the next rain falls.
I often think that we have been asking for trouble, letting the atomic genie out of its bottle, boring through the bed of the ocean after black gold and covering prime agricultural land with concrete, in the expectation that other countries will feed us. And isn’t the quest for relentless and unremitting material growth, on a limited planet, inviting the wrath of the Gods?