The social history of natural disasters

Recent floods in Cumbria (UK) have been caused by record breaking rainfall (Cumbria deluge breaks historic rainfall record) due in part to unusually high temperatures, 4 degrees above the seasonal average. In one 24 hour period the rainfall has been 10% higher than what is normal for the whole month of November. The man-made built environment and infrastructures have simply not been able to cope. But the extreme weather and ensuing floods cannot be seen as a purely ‘natural’ disaster. Like many others in recent years, this disaster has had a long history in the making.

Over many hundreds of years the landscape of the Lake District has been changed by deforestation and the grazing of sheep. The Cistercian abbeys of Furness and Byland, followed by land enclosures in the 16th and 17thcenturies, exploited the area for wool production. The process of deforestation was accelerated by iron ore smelting and later by the extraction of lead and copper. The resulting transformation of the land over several centuries, particularly the removal of the original scrubland vegetation and trees, produced the Lakeland landscape as it is known and loved today. But this dramatically altered the hydrology of the land and its ability to slow down and absorb surface water. This is also part of the story of the flooding of Boscastle in Cornwall in the August 2004 which similarly suffered unusually high rainfall in the space of a few hours. Long run changes in farming practices in the area, particularly land usage and the reduction of trees and hedges were seen as contributory factors.

Coincidently, just as the flooding of Workington and Cockermouth were dominating the newspapers in the UK, the flooding of parts of New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is in the news again. A court hearing has ruled that Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing flooding was not an act of God (Hurricane Katrina: It was not an act of God). The testimony of expert witnesses claimed that the danger of such a flood was acknowledged at least 17 years earlier and the responsibility for the devastation rested with policy failure and incompetent engineering and was as such avoidable. As for the hurricane itself it was not a 1 in a 100 year or even a 1 in 40 year storm and had not even been a direct hit.

In fact the history of flooding of New Orleans goes back to it founding in 1718 on swampland with a large proportion of the city below sea level and vulnerable to both sea surges and the flooding of the Mississippi basin. Since the growth of the city and the continual development of the Mississippi as a transport system with the rerouting of meanders and the cutting of channels for oil and gas installations the river has over the years lost the ability to deposit sediments and build up land around its mouth. It is estimated that over 2,300 square miles of the barrier islands and wetlands, the natural defence against storm surges and flooding, have already been lost. (Unnatural disaster Financial Times November 6 2009).

One way or another, adaptation to the environment has always been necessary aspect of human settlement. However, we seem to be entering a period of dramatic environmental change in which previous adaptations are becoming increasingly inadequate.

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