If only we could look ahead to the weather in 2013. Even if we could only foresee a few of the most destructive events, hundreds of lives and billions of dollars could be saved.
However, this isn’t possible, and all we can really do is look back at 2012 and try to learn from what has happened. Like most years, 2012 delivered a host of natural disasters: Hurricane Sandy, Typhoon Bopha, and the Iran earthquakes to name but a few.
Some of these were more deadly than others, but it’s important to note that huge death tolls are not an inevitable consequence of disasters.
About a year ago I met a lady from the United Nations who urged me not to use the term “natural disasters”, but to use the term “disasters of non-man-made origin” instead. This rather cumbersome name is unlikely to catch on in the snappy world of media, but part of me did understand why she encouraged me to make the change.
The UN believes that the term “natural disasters” makes people believe that their outcome is out of their hands. However, if you encourage people to call it a “non-man-made disaster”, then they may realise there are actions that they can take to minimise their risk of harm.
For me, one of the most heart-wrenching events of 2012 was Typhoon Bopha. Not only was the death toll due to the storm exceptionally high, but this same part of the world had also been hit by Tropical Storm Washi just 12 months earlier. It seemed like history was repeating itself.
The difference between Tropical Storm Washi and Typhoon Bopha is that the forecast for Bopha was spot-on. Tropical Storm Washi brought far heavier rain than was forecast, to an area that wasn’t prepared. Typhoon Bopha, in contrast, was known to be a hugely powerful storm. The forecasts were accurate, but nevertheless hundreds of people died.
The UN thinks damage from this kind of disaster can be reduced. The Philippines could learn from countries like Cuba, which are equally poor, but which have mandatory evacuation orders enforced when a tropical system approaches. This usually keeps death tolls to a minimum.
Obviously, there are always going to be some events that will catch people unaware. Some storms will turn out to be more potent than forecast, earthquakes still cannot be predicted, and we cannot protect ourselves against crippling droughts.
Unfortunately, the droughts in 2012 seemed to pinpoint the very regions that we rely on for our food: the US, Russia, the EU and India all saw dismal amounts of rain, which significantly reduced crop production.
The droughts hit four of the main five producers of grain in the world; only China increased its output. This has already led to a rise in food prices in some parts of the world, and 2013 may very well see further increases.
Our hope for 2013 should be that the weather improves in the world’s major growing regions, yielding plentiful amounts of food for the ever-growing global population. However, our aim for 2013 should be to take steps to reduce the number of deaths each natural disaster causes. Wherever the next storm strikes, we need to be ready.