Philippines ‘National Calamity’: the increasing frequency of disasters in an overpopulated world

The depressing scenes of devastation in the Philippines following the landfall of Typhoon Haiyan has led President Benigno Aquino to declare a ‘national calamity’. Images of flattened houses, downturned corpses and beached ships are all-too-familiar, with the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and 2011 Japanese Earthquake still fresh in the memory.

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The city of Tacloban has been virtually destroyed and up to 10,000 people are currently feared dead, yet such disasters have seemingly become increasingly frequent in recent history. There are several reasons for this:

Poor Infrastructure

Large swathes of the Philippines are extremely impoverished, with houses resembling little more than poorly-anchored tin cans, many on stilts in the country’s waterways. Road networks and bridges were equally ill-equipped to withstand the storm forces brought by Typhoon Haiyan.

Unlike with the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the Philippines was expecting the typhoon to strike and had ample warning of its impending landfall. However, the logistical difficulty of evacuating hundreds of thousands of people in sufficient time, with transportation routes inadequate to handle such traffic, proved impossible.

Even in highly-developed states, mass evacuations prove difficult. Both during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Japanese Earthquake in 2011, evacuating citizens quickly enough proved a monumental task and, despite warnings, the rapid onset of adverse weather conditions rendered it difficult for many people to escape.

Despite sophisticated infrastructure, and planning regulations which take into account earthquakes, Japan was devastated in 2011
Despite sophisticated infrastructure, and planning regulations which take into account earthquakes, Japan was devastated in 2011

Heightened Media Coverage

The idea that natural disasters are becoming increasingly regular is at least partly the result of public perception. Instant forms of media communication ensure no disaster, however remote, goes underreported.

Additionally, improving methods of calculating the costs of disasters, both in monetary terms and in relation to the loss of life, means that modern disasters often appear more ‘deadly’. For instance, the 1960 Chilean Earthquake, the most powerful on record, has an official death toll in the region of 6,000, which is likely to be hugely underestimated.

Similarly, environmental devastation in former communist countries such as the Soviet Union and China are grossly downgraded in official records because of media censorship and regime protection. Modern forms of media communication have made such suppression harder.

Some 650,000 people are thought to have died in the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake, nearly treble the official Communist Party figure
Some 650,000 people are thought to have died in the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake, nearly treble the official Communist Party figure

Overpopulation

The single biggest contributing factor to the increase in devastation brought by natural disasters in recent years is the rapid growth of the world’s population. Particularly in developing countries such as the Philippines, urban areas are hugely overpopulated meaning more people are naturally in the ‘firing zone’ when disasters strike.

This problem is exacerbated by the decreasing amount of living space in overpopulated states, meaning the poor have to seek shelter on rivers, cliff faces, swampland or beneath volcanoes, thus increasing their chances of succumbing to a natural disaster.

It is believed that the world’s population will top 8 billion people by 2050. Global population growth rates are already unsustainable, leading to environmental degradation (which may itself be linked to an increase in natural disasters), overcrowding and building in unsafe areas.

The factors outlined above have all combined to devastating affect in the Philippines yet, scarily, they are not solely restricted to the developing world. With natural disasters particularly hard to predict with great accuracy, and almost impossible to mitigate completely, more people will lose their homes and lives the world over unless a radical change in population growth rates and settlement patterns occurs.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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