Un-natural Disasters

tsunamiThe Memorial Mural to the victims of the 1862 “Lavalas” comes at a time when natural disasters have been a national preoccupation since the 1998 El Nino-induced rains and the huge downpour after the Tsunami. Yet 35 years ago I heard the head of the International Red Cross say ‘there is no such thing as a natural disaster. There are only man-made ones.’

This is still a controversial statement because it implies that people cause disasters. In fact what he was trying to say is that we create situations where we become vulnerable to disasters. The “lavalas” is a case in point. In 1862 a cyclone hit the Seychelles. The huge downpour that followed has been blamed for causing the massive landslip that led to 80 fatalities and massive property damage.

But, a man made disaster was waiting to happen and it only needed the rains to trigger it. The hillsides of Mahe had been denuded of natural forest over a period of almost 100 years. Wood was used for the “calorifers”, for construction and for shipbuilding. Much of our precious hardwood was also exported. At the time of the cyclone, the St. Louis road was also being developed and the river had been dammed and diverted to allow for the pass to be created. The rains poured down the bare hills carrying red earth and rocks, burst the man-made barrages and came down onto Victoria like a huge wall of earth, rocks, trees and water.

Unplanned and in-appropriate development and poorly constructed infrastructure is known to have been the cause of many of the disasters both in 1997 and after the Tsunami. Disasters, in many cases, have their root in a certain breed of people who believe they know better than everyone else. The “know-it-alls” cut into hillsides, divert steams, remove vegetation, build walls on beaches, reclaim marshes and light uncontrolled fires.

What usually happens is disaster: landslips, rock falls, floods, loss of beaches, bush fires and collapse of structures. Not only have they abused the environment but ultimately themselves and others. In many cases it is the Government, NGOs and insurance companies that have to pick up the tab.

It is high time that we realise environmental damage caused by our own short-sighted activities not only ruin our unique natural landscape but actually cost lives and millions of rupees in repair costs. And the repair rarely if ever brings the original environment back. A quote by Theodore Fox in The Dictionary of Scientific Quotations is appropriate to be repeated here “We shall have to learn to refrain from doing things merely because we know how to do them”.

Nirmal Shah

Article originally appeared in the author's Gaia Column, The People, 12.10.2012

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