Natural Disasters and Unnatural Losses

The whole world has watched the tragedy in the Philippines unfold this past week and held our breath together as the death counts rise higher and higher. In addition to Typhoon Haiyan there were also earthquakes in Delhi India, and a cyclone that claimed up to a hundred lives in Somalia. While we might never grow fully accustomed to these tragedies they are occurring in greater frequency especially in the developing world. Politicians and environmentalists are urging people to recognize the significance of global warming and climate change as revealed in these disasters. I do not doubt the truth in these statements and join with these people in sounding the alarm however there is another element to the tragedies that is all too uniform. We need to recognize the relationship between natural disasters and the poor.

From earthquakes in Pakistan, flooding in south Asia, and mudslides in Central America there is an economic dimension of the tragedy that is often overlooked. Cyclones, typhoons, mudslides, hurricanes, earthquakes and almost any other natural disaster we want to add to this list have been occurring for centuries. Their intensity may be increasing due to climate change but this alone does not account for the rising death tolls. Two things can be attributed to this: 1) increasing global populations and 2) the location of these populations in respect to the natural disasters. These two factors might seem self evident except when we recognize the demographics of the victims who in almost every natural disaster reside at ground zero.

To illustrate my point we need look no further than New Orleans, LA and Hurrican Katrina. New Orleans was no stranger to hurricanes before Katrina but the intensity of that monster surprised everyone. Through the course of many decades enduring one hurricane after another those properties and housing which sat in the most dangerous locations of New Orleans when a hurricane hit soon became anathema to developers as well as middle to upper income families. The properties thus became low value and then low income housing. When Katrina hit everyone in New Orleans sufferend but those in the direct path of the storm and its subsequent flooding happened to live in the property that always took the brunt of these storms. As a result neighborhoods like the ninth ward became household names as we watched poverty stricken Americans suffering under Katrina’s floods. The most dangerous place to live in a hurricane functioned like an economic magnet drawing the poorest individuals and families to affordable housing prior to the hurricane.

This same story is played out in Pakistani earthquakes, flooding in Bangladesh, mudslides in Guatemala, and so on…

The disasters are not as surprising as we are often led to believe; although tragic, they occur on a frequent basis in these geographic regions. Similarly the socio economic status of the victims are also not that surprising nor are they all that natural. It is the effect of growing populations and the poorest of the poor being pushed to the edges of national and local infrastructure.

Many like to use this observation as a political argument against cold hearted incumbents who do not care for the poor of their own country. I find that to be adding insult to injury for the victims of these natural disasters as well as their survivors. This is less a story about the deliberate cold cruel heart of man than it is about the negative byproducts of globalization. The same countries benefitting the most from globalization often have large population segments who suffer the most in these natural disasters. It is more about the evolution of economies than it is about heartless national leaders.

The drive for profits and economic growth is to be expected from our national leaders but this should be partnered with an increased awareness of those not benefitting and perhaps even being disadvantaged by current conomic growth.
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