Burma's Man-Made Disaster? How Nargis Devastated an Already Vulnerable Land

The cyclone that hit Burma revealed how people in poor countries are increasingly vulnerable when hit by natural disasters. Neither dykes, shelters nor a competent government were there to protect them. Man-made destruction of the environment only increases the danger.


Burma was left vulnerable to natural disaster.

Burma was left vulnerable to natural disaster.

The people of Bangladesh know only too well what the Burmese people are going through at the moment. It was only last November that Cyclone Sidr killed between 3,000 and 10,000 people -- and that was nothing compared to the 1991 disaster when a tropical storm left 140,000 people dead.

However, while the situation in Bangladesh is improving -- the government is investing in shelters and dykes, some of which have been built by Dutch companies -- there is no sign of an effective disaster prevention system in Burma. Instead the worst predictions of the apocalyptic effects of climate change seem to have come true: Rising sea levels cause flooding; the warmer surface water and more water vapour in the air increase the destructive power of hurricanes; and floods of refugees destabilize entire regions.

But things are not that straightforward, says coastal protection expert Hans von Storch of the GKSS Research Center in Geesthacht, Germany. "Burma is in a traditional tropical storm region," Storch told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Strong floods are typical for the region." Cyclone Nargis had such a devastating effect because it hit the entire coast of Burma, he points out.

'There Is Nothing There to Protect the Coast'

The main reason for the enormous number of victims -- the Burmese government has so far reported 23,000 dead and 42,000 missing and one US diplomat estimates the death toll to be as high as 100,000 -- is the vulnerability of the population. "There is nothing there to protect the coast," says Storch. One only has to look at Bangladesh to see how things could have been done differently. Numerous shelters have been erected along the coast to which people can flee to escape the storms.

The Dutch consultancy Royal Haskoning has been helping Bangladesh build dykes and reclaim land. The hydraulic engineers hope that the skilful development of the coast will even allow Bangladesh to actually reclaim a massive amount of land, instead of losing more and more. At the moment the land given over to agriculture is actually shrinking by 1 percent a year.

Besides, in Bangladesh -- as in Burma -- it's not just climate change and the resultant rise in sea levels that's to blame for the devastating effects of the cyclone. Just as India's water management policies affect flooding in Bangladesh, the destruction of mangrove forests has a lot to do with Burma's predicament.

An increase in population has led to an "encroachment into the mangrove forests which used to serve as buffer between the rising tide, between big waves and storms and the residential area," Surin Pitsuwan, general secretary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), said earlier this week at a conference in Singapore. "All those lands have been destroyed. Human beings are now direct victims of such natural forces." The forest destruction as a result of population increase is one reason "why the impact is so severe," Pitsuwan said.

In fact, a December 2005 study into the Asian tsunami found that mangrove forests can help protect against tidal waves. Researchers from the environmental group International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), compared the death tolls in villages along the Sri Lankan coast. In one village shielded from the coast by mangrove forests, only two people were killed. In a nearby town without such vegetation, 6,000 people drowned.

In Bad Shape

Mangroves grow in coastal areas where salt and fresh water mix and can stretch inland for kilometers. "Mangroves are a very dense vegetation type that grows along the shore," IUCN scientist Jeffrey McNeely told the BBC. "Especially in river deltas, mangroves prevent waves from damaging the more productive land that is further inland from the sea."

A man tries to rebuild his home in flooded fields after he survived Cyclone Nargis and waits for aid in Bogalay, Burma.

A man tries to rebuild his home in flooded fields after he survived Cyclone Nargis and waits for aid in Bogalay, Burma.

But Asia's mangrove forests are not in good shape. A recent study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported that 36,000 square kilometers of mangrove forests have been destroyed worldwide since 1980 -- an area larger than Belgium. Asia has suffered the most, losing 19,000 square kilometers of forest. The forests are usually cut to make room for fish and shrimp farms or hotels.

But climate scientist Storch does not think there is a correlation between climate change and more frequent catastrophic storms in Asia. "How, or even if, global warming influences tropical cyclones is still an open question at the moment," the scientist said. "However this subject has not yet been intensively researched." Climate scientists also disagree over how much sea levels will rise as a result of climate change.

According to Storch, the coasts in Burma and Bangladesh are different to ones in Europe. "These countries do not have a fixed, defined coast. There everything is still in motion." But it would make sense for Burma to have dykes and shelters, such as those in Bangladesh. "Of course, the right conditions have to be in place," Storch says. But that is exactly not the case with the Burmese military junta, as the current -- sometimes dramatic -- experiences of international aid organizations show.

In the long term, according to Storch, the only solution is for people to move to less threatened areas. "If there is a lack of protective buildings, there is no other option," Storch says. Yet, he doubts this will lead to massive waves of migration to neighboring states or even other continents. "Most of the people migrate from island to island or re-build their villages after a catastrophe," he said.

However, other experts are less optimistic. The London-based non-governmental organization International Alert published a report last November called "A Climate of Conflict." The report warns that in 46 states, with a combined population of 2.7 billion, the effects of climate change, combined with economic, social and political problems, will lead to a high risk of armed conflict.

In 56 other states, with a total population of 1.2 billion, the effects of global warming will probably spark political instability, which in the long-run could also lead to armed conflict in those countries, the report said. The researchers also warned that Southeast Asia was facing an increase in climate change-induced storms and catastrophic floods, as well as larger migration movements.


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