Just how ‘natural’ are natural disasters? Examples from Latin America

Latin America and Caribbean are especially vulnerable to natural disasters, but human interference can affect the overall impact of disasters, with climate change being the biggest manmade influence on disasters.

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Natural disasters are a phenomenon that the whole world has to put up with, but Latin America and the Caribbean are particularly vulnerable to the whims of earth, wind and fire. Floods, droughts, storms and earthquakes are a near-constant threat across the region, and while some areas are more prone to environmental hazards than others, there cannot be many regions in Latin America where communities are forever able to take their eye off the threat of some sort of disaster.

However, it can easily be argued that the term ‘natural disaster’ is never entirely accurate. To what extent are disasters that involve environmental extremes – such as floods or droughts – purely ‘natural’ ones? Could it be said that manmade factors have just as significant an impact on the severity of a disaster as the strength of the storm or earthquake, or the prolonged period of rainfall (or lack thereof)?

Latin America has provided several instances in recent times that can help answer these questions, with a range of ‘natural’ disasters all across the region which may or may not have been made much worse – or indeed in some cases less damaging – than they might otherwise have been due to human intervention.

 Earthquakes – Haiti and Chile

Undoubtedly the worst natural disaster the region has seen in recent times was the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010. The quake killed between 100,000 and 300,000 people (various estimates have been put forward and countered by others), and caused untold damage to the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, particularly in and around the capital, Port-au-Prince.

The disaster also raised the usual questions about how ‘natural’ a disaster a major earthquake can be. While of course the quake itself is entirely natural, caused by geological movements deep below the Earth’s surface, the damage that earthquakes inflict tend to be linked to factors such as the quality and density of buildings, infrastructure and other manmade objects, as well as the quality and efficacy of evacuation and response plans.

Poorly-built buildings are more prone to collapse, putting the lives of those who are in or around the building at the time of the earthquake at risk. Dense urban areas increase this risk, whereas a quake that strikes an isolated rural area is far less likely to result in significant loss of human life or heavy financial costs. Add in the historic poverty that has always affected Haiti’s population, which has resulted in these dense urban areas full of precarious shanty buildings, and you have a potent cocktail for environmental disaster when a major earthquake, or indeed a storm or hurricane, hits. The Haiti earthquake quickly became a cautionary tale of how a prolonged history of inequality and poverty can leave a society highly vulnerable to the impacts of a natural disaster, and indeed less capable of providing an adequate emergency response in the aftermath of such an event.

As if to accentuate this lesson, within less than two months of the Haitian disaster a massive earthquake struck off the coast of central-southern Chile. The quake was one of the most powerful ever to be recorded anywhere in the world, and was estimated to be up to 500 times more powerful than the Haiti quake, yet the human toll was far lower, with around 550 people losing their lives – a fraction of the human cost of the Haiti quake. This can be largely put down to the vastly superior infrastructure and disaster management that is a part of present-day Chile, meaning that Chileans tend to be a fair bit safer than their Haitian counterparts when disaster strikes. Even in this case, the majority of the deaths were blamed on a tardy warning and evacuation alarm concerning the tsunami that followed the quake, and the lessons learned from this apparent failure were more evident when another powerful earthquake and tsunami struck northern Chile in April 2014 – this time, the number of casualties was kept to a minimum, in spite of the extensive material damage caused.

A district of Port-Au-Prince destroyed by the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Photo courtesy of UNDP.

Drought – Colombia

Moving on to weather-based – or climatic – disasters and the same can be said: human intervention has arguably affected many such disasters in one way or another. Take the recent drought that besieged the Casanare department of eastern Colombia, and which came after months of incessant heat accompanied by a complete lack of significant rainfall. The drought made headlines mainly due to its impact on local livestock and farming, with pictures of bone-dry watering holes littered with the corpses of capybaras, cows, and even crocodiles, making for some chilling visual evidence of this devastating drought. While the human cost was relatively insignificant – notwithstanding the financial hit that many of the region’s farmers had to take – tens of thousands of animals lost their lives, with some estimates suggesting that more than 10% of the region’s livestock perished.

The event was also significant for the unusually complex debate over who or what exactly was to blame. While climate change is always an obvious suspect for these kinds of disaster, with a particularly long and harsh dry season having done much of the damage, it was also suggested that several human elements were to blame, especially since some locals insisted that the region had seen similar or worse dry spells before without such damaging consequences.

Oil companies have operated in the area for some time now, and it was alleged that their practices – which included fracking – had used up significant water resources while polluting much of what was left of the water table. Agriculture was also blamed, with some claiming that the region’s habitually lush pastures had been over-grazed by herds of cattle, while others pointed at alleged intense water use by some local farmers.

The Casanare region of Colombia was hit by a devastating drought earlier this year, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of cattle and other animals. Photo courtesy of El Tiempo (Colombia).
The Casanare region of Colombia was hit by a devastating drought earlier this year, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of cattle and other animals. Photo courtesy of El Tiempo (Colombia).

Floods – Paraguay

At the other end of the rainfall scale, Paraguay has borne the brunt of the intense rainfall to hit the basins of the Paraguay and Paraná rivers over the past few months, resulting in major flooding across the country and some neighbouring parts of Argentina and Brazil. The capital Asunción has been particularly badly hit, with as many as 80,000 people having to be evacuated here alone, and up to 300,000 across the country as a whole.

In this case, extreme weather can be said to be the undeniable cause of the flooding, with record rainfall leading to record river levels on the Río Paraguay, which flows around Asunción. The incessant rainfall and resulting flooding have taken the country by surprise, especially since the June-October period is supposed to be the dry season, with the actual rainy season beginning in November. That this makes the recent rain even more of an extreme event, then, could lead one to conclude that climate change, which is believed to be behind an increase in the number of extreme weather events and unusual seasonal patterns across the world, has been a driving factor.

The spectre of the climatic phenomenon El Niño, which many believe is about to unleash itself on the Eastern Pacific and the world over the coming months, is also behind both the recent floods in Paraguay and the prospect of further misery once the actual rainy season kicks in from October onwards, with the floodwaters unlikely to have properly receded before then.

However, once again the human element cannot be forgotten. Many of the worst affected areas in Paraguay have also been home to the poorest and most precarious communities in the country, especially in and around the shanty towns of Asunción. Shoddy buildings have been no match for the rising waters, while the shanties have sprouted up in recent decades in the parts of the city that have always been most prone to flooding in the event of extreme rainfall.

Floods caused by intense unseasonal rainfall hit many parts of Paraguay in June and July, with the capital Asunción particularly badly hit. Photo courtesy of AP.
Floods caused by intense unseasonal rainfall hit many parts of Paraguay in June and July, with the capital Asunción particularly badly hit. Photo courtesy of AP.

Climate Change – a manmade disaster

On a more general level, with many ‘natural’ disasters being climatic in nature, it appears almost inconceivable that climate change will continue to have an adverse effect on Latin America and the Caribbean, as this phenomenon will lead to an increase in the frequency and intensity of storms and hurricanes, extreme rainfall events and flooding, and droughts and wildfires.

However, as long as one agrees with the 97% expert consensus on the causes of climate change, it must also be pointed out that climate change is itself a man-made phenomenon, caused by the release of vast quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuel for electricity production, transport, and other industrial uses. To this can be added the fact that deforestation, particularly in some of the world’s major rainforest areas such as the Amazon rainforest, has led to fewer of these greenhouse gases being ‘sequestered’ and converted into oxygen, which contributes to a further building-up of these gases in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Latin America and the Caribbean is by no means the worst offender when it comes to historical contributions to greenhouse gas emissions and causing climate change: that accolade belongs to the western industrialised world, and increasingly also to emerging industrial powers such as China and India. In this sense, on the one hand one could argue that the ‘natural’ disasters that Latin America has become accustomed to have little to do with the actions of Latin Americans themselves, with other nations’ continued abuse of the planet’s biosphere carrying the bulk of the blame.

On the other hand, though, Latin American greenhouse gas contributions cannot be completely discounted, both through direct emissions and through practices such as deforestation. Longer-term factors such as poor infrastructure, lack of planning, and social and spatial inequalities, can also do more to determine the devastating impact visited on victims than the climatic conditions that cause the event in the first place.

Each individual disaster has myriad contributing factors and circumstances behind it, many of them complex and interlinked with others. Yet one thing can surely be stated with confidence: in this day and age, no disaster is simply ‘natural’ and without human interference, including in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Amazon Rainforest, which has suffered from significant deforestation that then contributes to climate change, needs a little love… Photo courtesy of Reuters (Ivan Canabrava).