Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Fallout from Japanese Disaster Not Only Nuclear

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday,  April 3 / 11

Zack Gross

The recent and on-going triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan has raised many questions – not all of them new – about vulnerability of the poor, preparedness of communities and nations, causes of the current spate of natural disasters, and fear in the minds of people about the future. 

It seems that this latest tragedy is not just a mess that needs to be cleaned up.  Deeper questions are being raised.

Even in Japan, where preparation for natural disaster is considered a national priority, recent events have led to the death and disappearance of almost 20,000 people and set the country back, in terms of infrastructure and economic recovery, at hundreds of billions of dollars. 

Anger has been generated at the company running the nuclear plants and at the government and its response to what has happened.

The President of Ethiopia, Girma Wolde-Giogis, leader of a country prone to all manner of disaster – drought, conflict, disease and more – cautioned after the Japan quake that disaster has an even greater impact on poor and “under-developed” countries. 

Speaking at an international event on disaster risk reduction and climate change, he called upon participants to focus on prevention, including examining and acting upon our rich Western lifestyle, enhancing our cooperation in global poverty alleviation programs, and facing head-on issues related to climate change. 

A particular concern exists for Asia where it is estimated that 85% of natural disaster-related casualties occur.  Since 2004, there have been major and frequent disasters in the Philippines, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Burma, China and elsewhere on that continent.  A global risk assessment company puts Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran and Pakistan in the “extreme” category. 

Not only does this company’s tracking show where vulnerabilities exist, but also that risk of natural disaster around the world is growing.  The high number of 85% speaks to the size of Asia, the number of disasters, population density, poor engineering standards, weak preparedness (maybe not in Japan) and poverty.  In particular, with poverty, those who can afford to own land occupy the highest available and are therefore less vulnerable to flooding.

A number of scientists have spoken out since the Japanese earthquake and tsunami to tie climate change into the sharp growth in the number of these natural disasters. 

It has long been understood that climate change contributes to extreme and unpredictable weather.  The extreme heat felt in Europe in recent summers, the massive storms and tornadoes in the United States, the widening deserts in Africa are just some examples of this. 

One cause of tsunamis, described by William McGuire, a professor at University College, London, is: “that the on-going rise in global average temperatures may already be eliciting a hazardous response from the geosphere.  When ice is lost, the earth’s crust bounces back up again and that triggers earthquakes, which trigger submarine landslides, which cause tsunamis

Another response to recent natural disasters comes from the United States and its fundamentalist Christian constituency. 

Polls show that just over half of Americans (56%) believe that God is in control of all that happens on earth and that almost as many (44%) believe that the disaster in Japan is a sign from God of “end times
.”  University of Toronto sociologist Scott Schiemann explains that there is a widespread human urge to “turn to God” for an explanation of any major disaster.

Thus, two-thirds of white American evangelicals believe that the Japan disaster is a message from a deity and one-third feel that God punishes an entire nations for the sins of a few.  

Schiemann believes that natural disasters make people feel much less in control of their lives and therefore liable to identify “someone” else who has that control.  Of course, people who strongly believe in an active God may have less of a feeling of control over their lives anyway. 

Either way, the idea that “end of times” or “control by a deity” is behind all of the recent disasters is a simplistic view of causality and actually takes away responsibility that we should feel for current changes in our world. 

Not only must we, humanity, be more able to respond to these situations, but we must also work harder at prevention.

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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