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Forest fire

A commonwealth of compassion

This page is an edited version of an article reproduced abridged in the Church Times in November 2010, under the title ‘Prepare now for Natural Disasters’.

A disastrous year!

2010 was notable as a year of successive disasters – earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, New Zealand, flooding in Pakistan, a mudslide in Gansu in China, forest fires in Russia.

If we think such events are getting more frequent and severe, this isn’t just illusion or myopia. Global insurance giant Munich Re logged a three-fold rise in the 3 decades from 1980 to 2010!

Each time, the human family comes together to offer relief, while the demands on governments and the public keep ramping up. Those needs do not cease once the media have moved on. Better preparedness is needed for the next time – wherever that might be. As aid infrastructures reconfigure for continuous readiness and response, how can we as people of faith and goodwill, and Christians, avoid ‘compassion fatigue’ and still play our proper part? How can we, in a Churchillian phrase, ‘rise to the level of events’?


Some of the calamities we face are geological in origin – earthquakes, tsumanis, volcanos – others are attributable to the climate. Assuming no change in the rhythm of plate tectonics, the human and economic toll from earthquakes (as well as adverse weather events) would still increase – growing populations mean more suffering, better development and more expensive infrastructures make repairs more costly. On the plus side, they may increase resilience; communications have improved; we hear more what is happening in remote places; and there are more claims on insurance.

Still after discounting for these factors, Munich Re concluded that adverse climate events in themselves had doubled in their combined scale and frequency, over the previous three decades. For this trend, the finger of suspicion points, inevitably, towards climate change. Hardly ever is it possible to link global warming to any single incident – there are always specific proximate causes – rather it is the matrix of probabilities which seems to have shifted. Climate change, by definition, just is the totality of the whole pattern.


The catastrophe in Pakistan illustrated several of these themes. Thousands died. Such a mortality is grievous, but may not have been as great as on many previous occasions. China’s Yellow River – the benchmark for fluvial perversity – has flooded again and again down the ages; as recently as 1931, a million or even more may have perished. But in terms of the territory affected, the numbers displaced, the destruction of homes, livestock and property, Pakistan’s tragedy in 2010 appeared without precedent in recent centuries. Yet a major flood was actually predicted in Pakistan this year – not just from monsoon rains, but from land slippage across the Hunza tributary of the Indus – as happened in 1858.

There was good reason to fear landslides; in the event they did occur – in China, and Central and South America, as well as Pakistan. Also in 2010, Pakistan recorded Asia’s highest ever temperature in the instrumental record (53 deg C) – just before the heaviest rains since the floods of 1901. The confluence of multiple risks in the same location, comprised of more intensive human influences, as well as global structures, overlaid upon underlying meteorological and topographical conditions, presage a toxic cocktail of repeated calamities. Nowhere is this more true than in Africa, which seems at times to be suffering ‘death by a thousand cuts’ – whether in the drought-ridden Sahel, or Mozambique with the floods of 2000 or the food riots in Maputo (attributed by Raj Patel in the Observer to grain shortages, partly due to fires in Russia).


Different places have very different vulnerabilities. The extremely high toll in the Haiti earthquake (some 230,000) was out of all proportion to the seismic intensity (7.0) – about the same as in the first Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand. In another heavily built up area, Kobe in Japan in 1995, a slightly greater intensity of 7.2 yielded a grim toll of nearly 6,500 – still much less terrible than in Haiti.

We hear it said “It may take months, or years, to recover”. That may be true in the most developed economies – yet the reality is, where resilience is least and resources most stretched, for the victims and their communities nothing is ever the same. Even New Orleans – a major city in the richest country on earth – is only now (2010) edging back to a kind of normality (from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005).


Who is responsible? All of us – if not for the causes, then for the outcomes. Some disasters may be purely natural. The underlying causes of others may be down to the climate, and to us. And there is a fundamental inequity between the causes of climate change through CO2 emissions mainly in developed countries, and those undeveloped or developing nations where the combined hazard (the product of risk x impact) is greatest.

But doom-mongering is not our aim, nor assigning blame – least of all any theology of blame. Voltaire rightly concluded as long ago as the Lisbon earthquake, tsunami and fire of 1749: God is not judging the victims of such an event. Jesus himself said the same after the Tower of Siloam fell. More likely He is judging the rest of us! – on how we deploy our talents, our practice of compassion. That is a recipe for positive action, not disabling guilt.

Charity or partnership?

Whatever the cause then, humanity must be ready with help and succour. And we’re making progress. News travels further and faster; preparedness and response have improved; the human family has got better in coming to the aid of its suffering members. The UK public is generous in response to major appeals. The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) raised more than £100m for Haiti. If every working adult doubled their contribution to just a fiver, that would deliver the same again.

Nor must we forget to prepare for something else, where we least expect it, maybe tomorrow! Be it the Haiti earthquake, or the Boxing Day tsumani of 2004, the aftermath of each disaster overlaps the onset of the next. A tragedy strikes which might once have dominated the media, but at the same time as an even bigger one – so passing all but unnoticed. How many remember Chile – or Niger? The suffering of Haiti was not at an end when Pakistan came to the fore; they should all remain side by side in public consciousness and action.

Sometimes perhaps they do: the DEC’s fund for Pakistan has just topped £60m; while the window of a South London pub boasts a new advert for hands.org – a US charity sending volunteers to rebuild Haiti. Civil society remains the cornerstone of effective care. In wealthy countries and lower-risk environments, we should recognise an ongoing call on all our resources. Aid infrastructures should still allow for giving according to individual priorities, affinities and connections. Each set of circumstances is unique, stimulating emotions and responses differently.

Ongoing needs

No more can we treat each disaster as just a one-off – expecting life will then return to normal. The UNISDR (the UN’s disaster agency) already shows signs of enfolding the needs from past, present and future tragedies in its disaster planning.

That means not just reacting to specific events, but also building capacity to withstand adverse events and threats. Mali’s exposure to drought has been known since the 1990s. Today, partnerships such as those of Christian Aid, providing training in farming techniques (with APH Bandiagara), and electricity to Guaralo Village (with the Mali-Folkecenter, and World Bank funding), bolster food security, nurturing ‘right relations’ between agencies, communities and peoples. The Climate Justice Fund, set up by Tearfund with the Church of England, is designed to promote climate adaptation through hand-picked projects in developing countries.

One planet, one family, one home

We’re all in the same boat now. That old Dutch adage “Wie het water deert, die het water keert” (Who the water hurts, who the water stops) isn’t suited to our times!

Climate disasters may strike anywhere. Many in the UK have felt fairly comfortable – till the worst happened. Now after the floods on the Severn and in Cumbria, do we think we have enough on our own plates? We could prepare better. The Environment Agency notes that “householders and business need to … undertake property-level protection measures …” – to say nothing of the folly of siting developments on flood plains. Where physical measures fall short, for all but the highest risk properties insurance is available (for the time being) at a cost modest enough for most pockets.

When we’ve done all we can, there’s no shame in calling on others. Japan was chided for not accepting foreign aid in 1995. Might we have recourse to Dutch know-how? They built their lives on sea-girt polders. Even with the Thames Barrier, our capital city would not be immune from an event as exceptional as the floods in Pakistan. When we have benefited from others’ kindness, another time we can render still more in gratitude.


What new prescriptions, then, can be suggested? Well first, states should deliver on the promises they’ve already signed up to: honouring commitments made in the competitive generosity following in the wake of previous disasters – while redoubling efforts to deliver on the Millennium Development Goals. The UK Coalition’s Comprehensive Spending Review will disclose whether its undertaking to ring-fence the aid budget still holds. Can governments of affected countries set aside national pride or secretiveness, accepting and cooperating with aid, from whatever quarter it may come?

Let’s go on building resilience for the future, as well as providing for the urgent needs of the present. Could not aid and disaster relief agencies set up multiple funds for different locations and past appeals, remaining side by side on their websites together with contingency funds for future risks – and establishing protocols for lending between funds as the shifting tide of circumstances may dictate? Don’t let’s wait for the box to appear on the pub counter or supermarket check-out. Can individuals and households quietly set aside gift-aided budgets – whatever the proportion, a new tithe for a new age perhaps – creating enduring links with the communities and long-term projects they support? Let’s convert the human commonwealth of our interconnected world into practical politics.

Photo credit: Forest fire via photopin (license)

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