Test Disasters build on the impacts of the past

A new report, Interconnected Disaster Risks 2020/2021, released recently by the United Nations University – Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) viewed disasters through a lens of interconnectivity. The report analyses 10 different disasters from 2020/2021 and finds that even though they occurred in vastly different locations and do not initially appear to have much in common, they are interconnected with each other.

As shown by the key findings of the recent IPCC 6th Assessment Report, extreme events, such as droughts, fires and floods, are increasingly compounding each other, likely as a consequence of human influence. This new report shows in detail how not only climate disasters, but human-made disasters in general build on the impacts of the past and pave the way for future disasters.

The frequency of severe weather events, epidemics and human-made disasters is increasing globally, and it is becoming ever more challenging to keep pace with the corresponding changes and impacts. In 2020/2021, the world witnessed a number of record-breaking disasters: the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, a cold wave crippled the state of Texas, wildfires destroyed almost 5 million acres of Amazon rainforest, and Viet Nam experienced 9 heavy storms in the span of only 7 weeks. By analysing past events through the lens of interconnectivity, both the disasters that are happening right now and those that will happen in the future can be better understood.

“When people see disasters in the news, they often seem far away,” said UNU-EHS Senior Scientist Dr. Zita Sebesvari, a lead author of the report during the report release. “But even disasters that occur thousands of kilometres apart are often related to one another and can have consequences for people living in distant places.”

An example of this is the recent heatwave in the Arctic and cold wave in Texas. In 2020, the Arctic experienced the second-highest air temperatures and second-lowest amount of sea ice cover on record. The increasing temperature in the Arctic destabilizes the polar vortex, a spinning mass of cold air above the North Pole, allowing colder air to move southward into North America. Thus, changes in Arctic temperature influence locations far away from the Arctic and likely also contributed to the below-freezing temperatures in Texas, a state that is used to year-round warm weather. Around 4 million people were without electricity as the power grid froze up, and 210 people died.

The case of Amphan

The Sundarbans is a delta region characterized by one of the largest mangrove forests in the world that supports rich biodiversity, acts as a shelter belt from extreme weather and provides the livelihoods of millions of people, almost 50 percent of whom are living under the poverty line. Disasters also often occur simultaneously and compound each other, as happened with the COVID-19 pandemic and Cyclone Amphan in Sundarbans, the border region of India and Bangladesh. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left many people without income options, including migrant workers who were forced to return to their home areas and were housed in cyclone shelters while under quarantine.

When the region was then hit by Cyclone Amphan, many people, concerned over social distancing, hygiene and privacy, avoided evacuating to shelters and weathered out the storm in unsecure locations. The “super” cyclone in turn worsened the conditions for pandemic response in its aftermath, as health centres were destroyed and COVID-19 cases spiked in some areas. Amphan itself caused over 100 fatalities, damages in excess of 13 billion USD and displaced 4.9 million people.

As an area that is struck by ever-intensifying storms and floods, and a combination of rising sea levels with damming of upstream rivers causing an increasingly eroded and saline coastline, the region’s natural coastal defences had already been weakened before Amphan hit.

The key root causes are (a) full environmental costs undervalued in decision-making (b) insufficient disaster risk management and (c) human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.