Disasters build on the impacts of the past

When a cyclone and a pandemic combine (Image: UNU-EHS/Tanmay Chakraborty)
When a cyclone and a pandemic combine (Image: UNU-EHS/Tanmay Chakraborty)
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A new report, Interconnected Disaster Risks 2020/2021, released recently by the United Nations University – Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) viewed disasters through a lens of interconnectivity. The report analyses 10 different disasters from 2020/2021 and finds that even though they occurred in vastly different locations and do not initially appear to have much in common, they are interconnected with each other.

As shown by the key findings of the recent IPCC 6th Assessment Report, extreme events, such as droughts, fires and floods, are increasingly compounding each other, likely as a consequence of human influence. This new report shows in detail how not only climate disasters, but human-made disasters in general build on the impacts of the past and pave the way for future disasters.

The frequency of severe weather events, epidemics and human-made disasters is increasing globally, and it is becoming ever more challenging to keep pace with the corresponding changes and impacts. In 2020/2021, the world witnessed a number of record-breaking disasters: the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, a cold wave crippled the state of Texas, wildfires destroyed almost 5 million acres of Amazon rainforest, and Viet Nam experienced 9 heavy storms in the span of only 7 weeks. By analysing past events through the lens of interconnectivity, both the disasters that are happening right now and those that will happen in the future can be better understood.

“When people see disasters in the news, they often seem far away,” said UNU-EHS Senior Scientist Dr. Zita Sebesvari, a lead author of the report during the report release. “But even disasters that occur thousands of kilometres apart are often related to one another and can have consequences for people living in distant places.”

An example of this is the recent heatwave in the Arctic and cold wave in Texas. In 2020, the Arctic experienced the second-highest air temperatures and second-lowest amount of sea ice cover on record. The increasing temperature in the Arctic destabilizes the polar vortex, a spinning mass of cold air above the North Pole, allowing colder air to move southward into North America. Thus, changes in Arctic temperature influence locations far away from the Arctic and likely also contributed to the below-freezing temperatures in Texas, a state that is used to year-round warm weather. Around 4 million people were without electricity as the power grid froze up, and 210 people died.

The case of Amphan

The Sundarbans is a delta region characterized by one of the largest mangrove forests in the world that supports rich biodiversity, acts as a shelter belt from extreme weather and provides the livelihoods of millions of people, almost 50 percent of whom are living under the poverty line. Disasters also often occur simultaneously and compound each other, as happened with the COVID-19 pandemic and Cyclone Amphan in Sundarbans, the border region of India and Bangladesh. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left many people without income options, including migrant workers who were forced to return to their home areas and were housed in cyclone shelters while under quarantine.

When the region was then hit by Cyclone Amphan, many people, concerned over social distancing, hygiene and privacy, avoided evacuating to shelters and weathered out the storm in unsecure locations. The “super” cyclone in turn worsened the conditions for pandemic response in its aftermath, as health centres were destroyed and COVID-19 cases spiked in some areas. Amphan itself caused over 100 fatalities, damages in excess of 13 billion USD and displaced 4.9 million people.

As an area that is struck by ever-intensifying storms and floods, and a combination of rising sea levels with damming of upstream rivers causing an increasingly eroded and saline coastline, the region’s natural coastal defences had already been weakened before Amphan hit.

The key root causes are (a) full environmental costs undervalued in decision-making (b) insufficient disaster risk management and (c) human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.

The key interconnections: Amphan

Shared root cause with: Paddlefish extinction

  • Environmental costs and benefits undervalued in decision-making
  • Environmental costs of dam constructions not being accounted for is leading to a loss of biodiversity in coastal mangroves, which compromises ecosystem services, particularly coastal protection.

Shared root cause with: Great Barrier Reef Bleaching

  • Human-induced greenhouse gas emission
  • Driving higher sea-surface temperatures are contributing to both coral bleaching and more intense cyclones.

Indirect influence: COVID-19 pandemic

  • Lockdown restrictions are causing loss of livelihoods in impacted areas and reducing effectiveness of cyclone response options.

Wider picture: A symbolic event

Globally, there was a record-tying 103 named cyclones in 2020 alone, accounting for over 1,300 deaths and over $73 billion in damages. Of these cyclones, Amphan is notable for its severe impacts on vulnerable communities due to the compounding effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The likelihood of severe storms is set to increase, as are levels of population and development in vulnerable coastal zones, while ecosystem services and protection from coastal ecosystems are literally being eroded. Without integrated coastal zone management, loss and damage of coastal settlements due to storms is likely to increase in the future to a point where recovery is no longer feasible. In addition, however, as novel events and pandemics are predicted to increase in the future, multi-hazard events where different types of events co-occur (in this case a cyclone and a pandemic) must also be given more consideration in risk planning.

Disasters – interconnected by seemingly underlying factors

Oftentimes, disasters stem from the same root causes, which means that they are interconnected by the same underlying factors that create the conditions for these seemingly unrelated disasters to occur. The report identifies three root causes that affected most of the events in the analysis: human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient disaster risk management and undervaluing environmental costs and benefits in decision-making.

Human-induced greenhouse gas emissions were one of the reasons why Texas experienced the freezing temperatures, but they also contribute to the formation of super cyclones such as Amphan, for example – an entirely different disaster in an entirely different part of the world. Insufficient disaster risk management was one of the reasons why Texas experienced such high losses of life and excessive infrastructure damages during the cold wave, and the same also contributed to the high losses caused by the Central Viet Nam floods.

But disasters are not only connected to each other; they are also connected to us as individuals. The record rate of deforestation and wildfires in the Amazon is in part due to the high global demand for meat: farmland is needed to grow soy, which is used as animal fodder for poultry. This means that some of the root causes of disasters are in fact influenced by the actions of people far away from where the event itself occurs.

“What we can learn from this report is that disasters we see happening around the world are much more interconnected than we may realize, and they are also connected to individual behaviour. Our actions have consequences, for all of us,” said fellow lead author Dr. Jack O’Connor. “But the good news is that if the problems are connected, so are the solutions.”

The report showcases solutions at both the societal and individual level and explains how one action, such as cutting our greenhouse gas emissions, can affect many different types of disasters: it can prevent a further increase in the frequency and severity of hazards and protect biodiversity and ecosystems.

The ten disasters covered in the report are: Amazon wildfires – Wildfires fueled by global appetite; Arctic heatwave – Spiraling into a climate disaster; Beirut explosion – When the global community abandons a ship; Central Viet Nam floods – When being prepared is no longer enough; Chinese Paddlefish extinction – The fish that survived the dinosaur extinction but not humankind; COVID-19 pandemic – How a pandemic is showing us the value of biodiversity; Cyclone Amphan – When a cyclone and a pandemic combine; Desert locust outbreak – How manageable risks spin out of control; Great Barrier Reef bleaching – Losing more than a natural wonder; and Texas cold wave – A preventable catastrophe?

 

Based in Bonn, Germany, UNU-EHS conducts research on risks and adaptation related to environmental hazards and global change. The institute’s research promotes policies and programmes to reduce these risks, while taking into account the interplay between environmental and societal factors. 

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