Saturday, 19 February 2011

Dealing with the aftermath of flooding

This is slightly off topic (if you can bear the length there is a link to climate change right at the end) but I have been trying to keep ontop of some of the population and rivers stuff and so I thought I would try and write a blog post which discussed how different countries deal with the aftermath of flooding. I have also tried to explain how the La Nina oscillation caused extreme rainfall in Australia and Sri Lanka but it is rather complicated - don't fret it is no longer on the syllabus!

Over the past few weeks the news has been filled with stories about flooding across the globe. It is believed that they have all been caused by the same thing – the La Niña oscillation. This oscillation is rather complicated and scientists don’t really understand why or how it happens but I am going to try and explain some of the basics (as I understand them). La Niña occurs when the surface temperature of the water in the eastern Pacific cools and the western waters get warmer. This increase in surface temperature to the west means that the water has more energy and so heavy rainfall and storms become more frequent. The cold water from the deep depths of the ocean gradually rises upwards and collects off the west coast of South America. Strong easterly trade winds pull the cold water across the Pacific. This causes warm water and high pressures to build up along the east coast of south-east Asia and Australia where it becomes trapped which results in heavy rainfall. La Niña has varying impacts on the climate in different parts of the world. Usually the parts of the world that normally experience dry weather become drier and those with wet weather become wetter. The Atlantic and Pacific hurricane activity often increases with La Niña and the effects of severe droughts are likely in those already dry parts of the world.
Although it is believed that the recent floods in Australia and Sri Lanka were caused by the same weather system; the precipitation that fell has had very different impacts on these regions and the two different countries have taken very different approaches to deal with the aftermath of the flooding. Brazil has also experienced floods but it is unclear if this was caused by La Niña as the Met Office claim that La Niña should have made Brazil drier this year. This is an example of how scientists are still unsure about La Niña and also El Nino which has the opposite effect on the climate. The El Nino Southern Oscillation is created when the trade winds that blow along the South American coast from the south east weaken and the temperature of the sea along the South American coast begins to rise. The atmospheric pressure decreases in the eastern Pacific and rises in the western Pacific which causes the warm air and water to move to the eastern side of the Pacific where it replaces the colder water supplied by the Humboldt current. Usually this causes increased levels of precipitation for the western and southern areas of South America and, the lower ocean temperatures create exceptionally dry weather in the countries in the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. It is unclear what causes the switch between a La Niña and an El Nino and scientists don’t really know if there is any pattern to when they switch.
In Australia the floods, so far, are believed to have claimed 35 lives but there are still some people missing. The floods forced thousands of people to abandon their homes and their belongings. The flooding was caused because the annual monsoon rains coincided with La Niña. These two different weather phenomena do not usually occur simultaneously but, as I am sure you are all aware, when they did the impact on Australia was vast. Last year Australia experienced many bush fires and droughts and the conditions required to provoke these events were created by the El Nino Southern Oscillation. This meant that the ground was extremely dry and so flash floods became a possibility if enough precipitation fell in a short time. As you are all aware, this is exactly what happened as the La Niña oscillation at the beginning of the year, which has been suggested to be the strongest one on record, created an awful lot of rain. Australia experienced its wettest December on record in Queensland with around four times the average rainfall in places and between 400mm and 1200mm (up to 4ft) of rain fell during that four-week period in coastal areas of Queensland. It is not just Queensland that has been hit by flooding. The south eastern state of Victoria has also experienced floods. The Victorian floods are estimated to have killed at least 6,000 sheep and washed away 41,000 hectares of crops, costing the agricultural sector as much as $2 billion in lost production and damaged infrastructure. The impacts of the flooding in Australia vary from the destruction of infrastructure and the loss of materialistic items to the impacts it will have on the Great Barrier Reef. Fortunately only a small percentage of people who were affected by the flooding have lost their lives but, especially in developing countries, this is often not the case. The next problem facing the Australian government is how are they going to deal with the aftermath of the flooding and ultimately who is going to pay for the massive clean-operation.

The clean-up operation is going to be a gigantic task as houses will have to be cleaned, redecorated, refurnished and have all the electrical systems replaced. Fortunately, in developed countries, most insurance companies will provide the funds for most of this. This will have to be done in every house in every one of the 80 communities that was affected by this flooding. Also other infrastructure, especially bridges and roads, will have to be repaired and the cost of this is going to huge. The backbone of the recovery effort is being provided by aid assigned by the Government, charitable donations and help from the military but this is not enough to rebuild the areas hit by the floods. To help foot the bill the Australian Government, from the 1st July, is implementing a 12 month flood tax for all those who earn over A$50,000 and who were not affected by the floods. The new tax will charge an extra 0.5% on those earning A$50,000-A$100,000 and 1% more on those earning more than A$100,000 and this tax is expected to raise about A$1.8bn. Australia is developed country and so has the resources, and economy, to recover fairly quickly on their own but for other, less developed countries, it is a different story………….
Sri Lanka also experienced wide scale flooding over the last few months. It is believed that as many as 390,000 people have been driven from their homes and at least 3,744 houses have been destroyed, according to the country's Disaster Management Centre. Although, at present, only 37 people have been killed; in developing countries the secondary effects are often worse than the primary effects. It is believed that 400,000 children could starve as the floods have destroyed 21% of the rice crops in the country and so food shortages are an impending issue. Developing countries often have very poor sanitation and so the spread of water borne diseases, like cholera, is likely. Once the water supplies become contaminated it is very difficult to contain the spread of the disease and this is exactly what happened in Haiti and the outbreak has killed over 1000 people. In terms of the cost of repairing the damage, in Sri Lanka it is a lot lower than the cost of rebuilding the Australian states affected. The cost of rebuilding Sri Lanka is estimate to be around £315 million but the country cannot afford to foot this bill. The reason for such a difference in the cost of repair is due to the fact that the damage done in Australia was mainly to the infrastructure which is costly to rebuild. In Sri Lanka the damage to infrastructure would be minimal in comparison as there is not as much developed infrastructure in the country. However, in Sri Lanka, the human cost is going to be a lot higher. In developed countries insurance companies pay out to provide the money need for the cost of repair to houses and taxes are then used to pay for the repair work needed on infrastructure etc. In Sri Lanka this is not the case and instead they have to rely on aid from other countries. So far medical units have been sent to the area to help those who have sought shelter in crowded relief camps and the government have sent military helicopters to distribute aid and used transport aircraft to move aid from the capital, Colombo. Four camps have been set up to help flood victims and troops have been deployed to distribute food and medical supplies. India has sent a plane loaded with food supplies as well as blankets and water purification tablets. The US said it was sending aid and has supplied boats to rescue the stranded and distribute bottled water, cooking materials and tarpaulins. Reaching those in remote areas is often an issue and countries often rely on the helicopters and boats provided by countries like the US to reach those in danger as they, themselves, do not have the resources to do so.

Australia will recover a lot quicker from the flooding than Sri Lanka will. The flooding that occurred in Pakistan 6 months ago is still causing problems in the country today. Over 1000 people died in Pakistan itself and around a 100 more in neighboring Afghanistan whilst thousands lost everything. The biggest issues provoked by the floods were the spread of diarrhoea and cholera and shortages of food and clean water. Pakistan had to depend on aid from other countries in a similar way in which Sri Lanka are doing so now. The UN provided £6.5 million in aid for the relief effort and the UK provided £10 million. The US also offered aid and as well as $10 million they provided 12 temporary bridges to replace most of those that were destroyed by the floods. The worrying fact is that, 6 months on, people are still dying due to the secondary impacts created by flooding. Some blame Government inefficiency, for example, the Sindh area is in desperate need of around 500,000 blankets but so far the Government has only sent 13,000. So the question is, how long will it take Sri Lanka to recover from the flooding and how sufficient and effective is just sending monetary aid?

In terms of development Brazil is probably in between Australia and Sri Lanka. The floods, which then led to landslides, killed over 800 people in Rio de Janeiro and over 500 people are still missing. Brazil is taking a totally different approach to dealing with the aftermath of the flooding. The Government has proposed to build 8000 ‘free’ houses to replace those that were destroyed by the flooding. President Dilma Rousseff has said 6,000 of the proposed homes would be paid for by the state and federal governments and the other 2,000 would be donated by a consortium of construction companies. The houses would be given to families living in shelters after their homes were destroyed and to those who were being removed from areas considered at risk of further flooding and landslides. It is planned that the proposed homes will be built on public land and the construction cost subsidised by the federal government and private companies, with the Rio state government then paying the monthly purchase instalments on behalf of poor families who move in. As well as trying to deal the aftermath of flooding, the Brazilian Government are also trying to implement measures to reduce the impacts if such an event was to occur again. The Government are directing funds to projects which involve mapping out areas that were prone to flooding and landslides and clamping down on unauthorised building in danger zones. Federal money is also being made available to rebuild roads and bridges and fund drainage and hillside stabilisation projects. The hope is that these new measures will reduce the impacts that future floods and landslides will have on the area and the people of Brazil.

These three countries have taken very different approaches to dealing with the aftermath of flooding but is there a right or wrong way to deal with the impacts of flooding? I think that it depends on the area as less developed countries could not implement a temporary tax to foot the bill of the clean-up. Developing countries have to rely on aid to recover after a disaster instead but often monetary aid alone is not enough. Advisors and medics are often needed more than just money to help ensure that the aid actually reaches the people that need it. I think the approach that Brazil has taken to floods is quite sustainable as not only are they trying to deal with the present situation but also prevent a similar one from occurring in the near future. Poor sanitation and unstable buildings in the favelas in areas like Rio de Janeiro escalate the impacts of flooding as they make landslides more likely and the spread of diseases more probable and by making building regulations stricter hopefully the conditions in the favelas can be improved and therefore the secondary effects of future floods less damaging.
Now I am going to try and link flooding to the current module. A recent report that investigated the flooding that the UK experienced during 2000, which damaged 10,000 houses and caused £1.3 billion worth of insurance loss, has blamed climate change for the flooding. This is the first time that anyone has linked a single weather event to climate change since Al Gore implied that human induced climate change caused Hurricane Katrina. Two reports that were released this week have suggested that the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, which has caused the average global temperatures to rise, has significantly increased the risk of flooding as warm air holds more moisture than cold air. Record high sea temperatures are believed to be the reason for La Nina being so strong this year and having such a devastating effect. It is believed that as we increase our greenhouse gas emissions the probability of severe floods occurring across the global will increase. The method used to come to this conclusion was to compare two climate models which were based on two different scenarios. The first one was classed as a realistic scenario and was based on the greenhouse gases that were present in the atmosphere during 2000 whilst the other one was based on a world where humans had not created and emitted any greenhouse gases. The conclusion of the report that used this method was that human greenhouse gas emissions "significantly increased" the likelihood of the 2000 floods and, they claimed, with a 66 per cent confidence level, that emissions nearly doubled the risk of the 2000 floods.
 The other report, which was carried out between Canada and the UK, studied the increase in the frequency of extreme precipitation events that occurred in the Northern Hemisphere between 1950 and 2000. They concluded that, although there have been some variations, extreme rainfall events have become more common and the only explanation of this trend is the slow steady increase in temperatures provoked by greenhouse gas emissions.
Both of these reports suggest that the possibility of floods, like those experienced in Australia, Sri Lanka and Brazil this year, occurring has significantly increased. This means that countries are going to have to be more prepared and have more efficient ways of dealing with the aftermath of flooding. So, is this really a great time for the government to announce that they are cutting the funds for flood denfences by 8%?

1 comment:

  1. Another development in our ability to prepare for floods in the UK..... after the floods in 2007, the government were greatly cricised for not being prepared. This week the largest flood defence exercise ever held in the UK is getting under way and, the excercise named Exercise Watermark, will last all week, cost £1.8m and involve around 10,000 people, 10 government departments, emergency services, utility companies and communities. Is this perhaps a step in the right direction by the government after they cut the flood defence budget or would the money be better spent improving flood defences...?