Climate change or not, protection from typhoons ought to be priority
I was on a tiny island off the coast of Vietnam when typhoon Haiyan began to roar its way towards the Philippines last week. Phu Quoc is in the Gulf of Thailand, well out of the storm’s path, but a deep tropical depression that preceded it by 24 hours set nerves jangling and put Vietnam on high alert.
We were lucky, some heavy rain and high winds passed over Phu Quoc in the middle of the night, causing little upset besides the usual deep water-filled ruts on red clay roads and some escaped cows seeking refuge from a flooded field.
The morning after, though, as I wandered the shoreline of Ong Lang Beach, a kilometre-long stretch of sand about 10 metres in width from the edge of the mangrove to the water, a hint of devastation many miles over the sea lapped in the surf.
The normally pristine beach was lined with flotsam and jetsam hurled into the waves by the storm. Palm fronds, pieces of tree trunk and tonnes of mangrove formed the bulk of it.
But tangled in the vegetal mass were hundreds of old shoes. Flip- flops, sandals, some sneakers and the occasional Croc washed up to the delight of Phu Quoc’s crab population, which explored them with vim.
It was as if a container ship filled with cheap footwear had gone down in the storm. Perhaps it had.
More likely, though, was that these sad, unpaired shoes were evidence of lives torn apart by Haiyan. For each had once held a foot which, one can presume, once belonged to a person whose belongings had been washed out to sea as the high winds ravaged towns, villages and farmsteads. Perhaps some of the shoes’ owners had been washed out to sea with their belongings.
The following day, after Haiyan had finished ripping through the central Philippines, yet more detritus washed up, including a landline telephone, a school desk, yet more shoes and hundreds of plastic seasoning packets of the kind commonly included with instant noodles.
After three days of this oceanic vomit, the sea’s stomach settled and the flow of garbage ceased.
But as the water cleared, so the clean-up and the accounting began across the Philippines.
Super Typhoon Haiyan, as the storm is now known, is thought to have been one of the strongest to make landfall in history. We will probably never know if the claim is true, as calculating wind speed and measuring barometric pressure were presumably not a priority for those in its 40km-wide path of devastation.
In all, the destruction across the Philippines is expected to cost insurers as much as US$700 million, a fraction of the estimated $14.5 billion in damage because so few people are covered.
Sadly, this is nothing new for the Philippines. Every year the country is hit time and again with storms that not only destroy lives and livelihoods but also set political and economic progress back by decades.
And such storms are arriving with greater frequency and ferocity.
Haiyan is the third Category 5 super typhoon to hit the Philippines in the past three years.
In 2010, Megi, with winds of 290kph, killed 35 people and did $276m of damage.
Bopha, which hit the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on December 3 last year with 260kph winds, left 1,901 people dead and was the costliest natural disaster in Philippines history at the time, with about $350m of damage.
According to the Philippine government, typhoon season has been getting increasingly worse since records began in 1947.
Data from the Philippine National Statistics board show that Amy, which hit in December 1951 with a wind speed of 240kph, was the strongest typhoon to hit at that point.
Senning, which hit in October 1970, was the next strongest storm with a wind speed of 275kph.
The wind-speed record soared to 320kph in November 2006 when Typhoon Reming hit. Then this month Haiyan smashed that record with winds of 380kph.
And it’s not just the Philippines. Storms are arriving with greater ferocity and frequency, causing increasingly greater economic damage all over the world.
Cyclone Phailin, with winds of 260kph, last month forced 500,000 people in India’s Orissa and Andhra Pradesh states to flee their homes.
This year has been relatively quiet in the Atlantic but in September Hurricane Manuel became one of the worst in Mexico’s history, causing $4bn worth of damage.
The World Meteorological Organisation says tropical cyclones killed nearly 170,000 people between 2000 and 2010, affected more than 250 million lives and caused $380bn of economic damage.
I agree with those scientists who put this generational change in climate down to an increase in pollution from industry and transport. Some don’t, but at this point does it really matter what the cause is?
Government, finance and industry need to prioritise protection from the elements rather than arguing about the causes of storms and the coordination of aid after the event, as is currently the case.
Devastated societies must be rebuilt to withstand the next, undoubtedly stronger storm with globally coordinated resources. If they do not, you can be sure that during the next typhoon season, the beaches will once again be strewn with shoes as the detritus of lost lives and livelihoods is scattered to the wind.
Updated: November 20, 2013 04:00 AM