Over the past two weeks, I'm sure I've been one of many contemplating the devastating events in Japan. As restoration at the Fukushima nuclear power plant continues to make slow progress one cannot help but wonder how bad this disaster has yet to come.
In terms of actual deaths already over 9,000 are confirmed dead and many more are still missing. In all probability, these early estimates will prove conservative. However, whilst each death is an individual tragedy, on a global scale these are comparatively small figures - the latest estimate for the Haiti disaster is 316,000 deaths with up to 3 million affected, the estimate for 2004 Tsunami is 230,000 deaths with another 1.3 million displaced and perhaps it is worth mentioning that everyday hundreds of children die from starvation and disease. In fact, according to Save the Children every year 3.1 million children die from the effects of malnutrition.
Those are, quite simply, staggering figures.
Yet, despite the relatively minor losses, the events in Japan may prove to be one of the most significant events of the early 21st century. It's the first time a leading global economic power has been seriously affected by a major natural disaster in recent times and it's becoming clear that Japan's infrastructure is been severely tested as food and power shortages add to the already immense problems.
It's an illustration to those of us who live privileged lives that we are not immune from natural disasters. One only needs to look at the ruins of the Japanese coastline to see how quickly industry and civilization can be washed away in the wake of nature's wrath. Many of the world's greatest economies and cities are situated on coastlines due to the very fact that cities grow where, over the course of history, trade has flourished. In fact, at least 17 of the 26 world's mega cities are situated on coastlines and Tokyo with a population of nearly 35 million, although not on the coast, is situated on a major fault line. As a point of interest, prior to the Tohoku earthquake some scientists had predicted a 30% chance of a category 7 or above earthquake under Tokyo in the next 30 years - In the light of recent events and the knowledge that earthquakes often follow each other in close proximity those estimates may have to be revised. The result may be even more alarming.
I don't think we can ever immunize ourselves from natural disasters; nature is both the beauty and the beast. Probably, one day, a meteorite will come hurtling out of the sky and take us back to the beginning again. That is the circle of life and death. From old life, new life grows. I don't think we should live in fear of it but, perhaps, on a day to day basis, it makes sense to better prepare ourselves against more frequent natural disasters and, of course, our own many man-made disasters.
Setting aside the infrequent horrors of tsunamis and earthquakes for a moment, if predictions about global warming are correct, all coastline cities will be under threat from flooding over the course of the 21st century, particularly those in Asia. Many scientists accept that there is a degree of climate change that is already unpreventable. However, we can help to limit the impact by making changes in the way we live and caring about our impact on the environment. Working towards economies that work alongside nature, and not against it, would be a huge step forwards. I certainly hope that the scepticism about nuclear power that has gained momentum after the Japanese catastrophe continues to grow. If the disaster at Fukushima helps to pave the way for increased investment in green energy then that at least that will be one positive thing to come out of this whole sad episode. We need to strike the right balance between using and abusing the world we live in and adopt a less ruthless and neanderthal approach to our existence. Whilst it's fairly obvious the world cannot support its population of around 7 billion without taking some risks we do need to think more carefully about the methods and impact of many of our current practices.
Our human lives are comparatively short so keep safe and well. And if you can spare some change for our friends in Japan, you can donate to the any number of disaster funds. Help to build new life.
Save The Children
Red Cross UK
1.) A mega city is defined as having a population of over 10 million. I believe at least 17 mega cities lie on the coast. (Geography isn't my strong point, so correct me if I'm wrong.)
2) Blogger Sachiko is from the area struck by the tsunami and has family there. You can follow her personal account on her blog, Tea Rose Home.
3) To find out more on climate change read my interview with Paul Brown or/and my review of his book Global Warning, Last Chance for Change here