A series of storms are wreaking havoc across Asia. Torrential rains have drenched the region, killing thousands, swamping hundreds of thousands more (millions have been affected in China) and creating a string of humanitarian disasters. It is tempting to throw up our hands in helplessness when faced with nature’s fury, but the truth is we are frequent accomplices in the destruction. Sometimes hubris is the culprit, other times — far too often — the problem is indifference to the consequences of actions, or ordinary greed.
Although typhoons and monsoon rains are expected during the summer, this year’s batch seems unusually severe. In the Philippines, 100 people are confirmed dead and many others are still missing after four days of rain. Vietnam is experiencing its worst flooding in nearly half a century: Thirty-two people have been killed and at least 5,000 are homeless. The damage is estimated at $20 million. Cambodia and Thailand have not been hit as hard, but they have not been spared either. Low-lying areas are submerged, crops have been lost and they are bracing for yet more rain.
In Northeast Asia, Typhoon Olga has left a trail of destruction in her path. South Korea has reported at least 40 dead, and dozens more are missing. Nearly 40,000 hectares of farmland were destroyed, and about 25,000 people have been left homeless by the floods. They are also menaced by stray land mines and artillery shells washed away by the rain. Nor is there relief in sight: The country is already getting the first winds from Typhoon Paul.
North Korea has been equally hard hit — with a reported 42 dead and 39,000 homeless. Given the country’s precarious situation after five years of famine and poor harvests, it is going to be a grim summer and autumn. The international community needs to start preparing now if it is going to avert a future disaster.
In China, the numbers are larger still. Rain and floods have taken over 700 lives, forcing 5.5 million others to be relocated and an estimated 1.6 million homes have been destroyed. Some 66 million people are thought to be affected by the floods, 11.3 million hectares flooded and damage is estimated to cost $8 billion. Those are big numbers, but they are also less than last year, when flooding on the Yangtze claimed over 4,000 lives.
Like last year, the media in China has played up the heroism of individual efforts to stem nature’s fury. And in the aftermath of last year’s disasters, the government has worked to strengthen the system of dikes and dams that control the nation’s waterways. But there is a growing acknowledgment that individuals have contributed to the destruction, as well. Corruption is certainly to blame. Funds intended for construction and relocation have disappeared. Premier Zhu Rongji has warned that “there is no room for optimism” because of the early rains and mismanaged water-control projects. A report by the National People’s Congress alleges that millions of dollars in flood-control funds have been diverted for speculation on real estate and in the stock markets.
Greed is part of the story. More significant are the costs of economic development and environmental mismanagement. Agricultural policies throughout the region have been utterly indifferent to their ecological side effects. Deforestation has stripped the land of vital cover and attempts to increase yields have destroyed the soil; both exacerbate the impact of heavy rains. The runoff contributes to silt buildup in waterways. The draining of river basins to increase farmland leaves low-lying areas susceptible to flooding. The combination of all those factors has increased the destructive potential of the rain — and Asian nations are paying a heavy price.
City residents should be worried, too. Urbanization has contributed to the problem. The widespread use of concrete changes flood plains. Sloppy construction leaves buildings and bridges susceptible to the elements. The failure to observe regulations is fatal when buildings are put up in dangerous areas: Landslides and collapsing buildings have claimed victims in the Philippines and South Korea.
When the rain begins to fall, it is invariably too late to fix the problem. Yet, like the proverbial leaky roof, it is often impossible to see trouble spots until then. Planning is the only way to avert such disasters. Codes have to be drawn up and the regulations strictly enforced. The will to say “no” is all that stands between us and the next deluge.
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