Robert Walker Robert J. Walker, 1/21/2010 [Archive]

Living on the Edge of Disaster

Living on the Edge of Disaster

By Robert Walker

Pat Robertson's assertions notwithstanding, the people of Haiti have fallen victim to an act of nature, not God's wrath for rejecting French colonial rule.The 7.0 temblor that struck Port au Prince this past week was not the first major quake that has rocked a Caribbean nation and it will not be the last.Earthquakes happen in greater frequency along geological fault lines like the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden Fault System that runs along Haiti's southern coast.

While the death toll in Haiti is still unknown, it is, no doubt, one of the largest humanitarian disasters in memory.What's disturbing is that the Haitian disaster and other recent calamities, including the deadly 2004 tsunami and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed more than 68,000 people in China, may be signs of even deadlier disasters to come.

There are several reasons for that. The first is climate change, which is likely to increase the number and severity of hurricanes in North America and typhoons in South Asia.In areas, like Central America and West Africa, that are already prone to floods, torrential rains and flooding may become more severe.Rising seas will also pose a threat.

Second, more people are moving into harm's way.It's projected that the number of people living within 60 miles of coastlines will increase by more than a third between 1995 and 2025.Close to three billion people will be living in coastal areas and potentially exposed to hurricanes and other storms.By mid-century, certainly by the end of the century, many of these people will be potentially affected by rising seas.

Growing population density is also a concern.The world is becoming more urbanized.According to the U.N., more than half the world's population now lives in an urban environment.The flight of rural populations to urban centers has created vast shantytowns in the developing world.With large numbers of people living in crowded conditions and sub-standard dwellings, the casualties and the humanitarian challenges can easily mount when earthquakes, storms and pandemics strike.

Population growth itself is also a challenge.Between now and mid-century, another 2.5 billion people could be added to the planet, and the vast majority will be living in developing countries, many of them in countries where the infrastructure and support services needed to deal with calamities is almost non-existent.Without adequate medical services to care for the wounded, roads for relief convoys, stockpiles of emergency supplies, and search and rescue personnel, the death toll in any natural disaster can easily soar.

Humanity, it appears, is increasingly disaster-prone.All the progress that the world has made in responding to tragedies, like the one in Haiti, could be reversed in the decades ahead. With increasing numbers of natural disasters and more people in harm's way, the capacity of donor nations and the world at large to respond to future crises may be stretched too thin.Donor fatigue could reduce the flow of aid, both for emergency assistance and the even greater costs of reconstruction.

The larger risk that the world faces is a growing list of failed states like Haiti.Even before the earthquake struck, Haiti was in desperate straits.Nearly three out of four Haitians live on less than $2 a day.Malnutrition is widespread.Its infant mortality rate is twelve times higher than Cuba's.And, despite its problems, Haiti's population continues to expand.In the next fifteen years alone, its population could increase by 2.5 million.

We cannot prevent earthquakes, and increasingly it appears that we will not do much to avoid the worst effects of climate change.But we can, and should, do more to help countries like Haiti cope with future tragedies.Improving education, expanding family planning services, and upgrading public health systems in the least developed countries can make them more resilient and more capable of dealing with natural disasters.

The alternative is seeing, as we do now in Haiti, a rising toll of lives that could be, but will not be, saved.

Mr. Walker is executive vice president of The Population Institute, a nonprofit organization working to achieve a world population that can live in harmony with the planet. Mr. Walker can be contacted at rwalker@populationinstitute.org.

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.



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