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Katrina or Cassandra?

By Darryl D'Monte

Last year, weather-related losses crossed $100 billion for the first time, and 30 million ecological refugees were displaced by drought, flood or other environment-related causes. Whether it's New Orleans or Mumbai, the lessons are virtually identical, as climate change intensifies across the globe

Bob (Robert) Thomas is a big, genial man, always smiling and ready to see the brighter side of life in any situation. He teaches environmental journalism at Loyola University in New Orleans , but is happier ambling down a forest path, peering at birds through his binoculars, or upturning a stone and exposing a spider or some equally hairy critter. He and I serve on the secretariat of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists and have known each other -- our wives included -- for a decade.

He wrote to me on July 27, the day after Mumbai received its torrential downpour, to commiserate and find out if I was okay. He marvelled at the 944 mm figure and exclaimed that it couldn't simply have been described as "rain" but something more tumultuous. He could have hardly foreseen that barely a month later his own beloved city would be virtually decimated, wiped off the face of the earth. He could hardly have foreseen that there were uncanny parallels between what happened in Mumbai, albeit on a much less violent scale, and what happened in New Orleans .

As is now coming to light, Katrina was a natural disaster but one that was heavily compounded by the folly of man. The Bush administration has been responsible for rolling back all the environmental protection measures that had been in place (as in the case of wetlands), or have yet to be put in place (as in the case of climate change). As Sidney Blumenthal, a former advisor to President Clinton, wrote in The Guardian in London : "A year ago, the US army corps of engineers proposed to study how New Orleans could be protected from a catastrophic hurricane, but the Bush administration ordered that the research not be undertaken. After a flood killed six people in 1995, Congress created the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project. Operated by the corps of engineers, levees and pumping stations were strengthened and renovated. In 2001, when George Bush became president, the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued a report stating that a hurricane striking New Orleans was one of the three most likely potential disasters -- after a terrorist attack on New York City . But by 2003, the federal funding essentially dried up as it was drained into the Iraq war. By 2004, the Bush administration cut the corps of engineers' request for holding back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain by more than 80%. By the beginning of this year, the administration's additional cuts, reduced by 44% since 2001, forced the corps to impose a hiring freeze. The Senate debated adding funds for fixing levees, but it was too late."

Only recently, one of the world's leading environmental journalists who specialises in climate change, London-based Fred Pearce, told the Mumbai Press Club how Katrina graduated from a category 1 storm to a category 5 as it crossed from a cooler Atlantic Ocean into the Gulf of Mexico, where New Orleans is situated, the temperature of which had risen to 30 degrees C at this time. There are no prizes for guessing that this was largely due to carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere, caused by reckless use of fossil fuels: it is no secret that President Bush is hand-in-glove with the oil industry and will do everything possible to protect it from environmental controls. Indeed, it is well known that ocean temperatures have a direct bearing on weather: the monsoon owes its origin to phenomena such as El Nino off the coast of Peru , where the hot air that rises as a result of warmer waters sets in motion currents that swirl around the earth.

A quarter of America 's oil production comes from the Gulf of Mexico and 60% of its oil imports come through ports located along the Gulf Coast . A tenth of US refining capacity is located in that region. Oil accounts for 42% of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. "The catastrophe now unfolding along the US Gulf Coast is a wake-up call for decisionmakers around the globe," says Christopher Flavin, president of Worldwatch in Washington . "If the world continues on its current course -- massively altering the natural world and further increasing fossil fuel consumption -- future generations may face a chain of disasters that make Katrina-scale catastrophes a common feature of life in the 21st century. The appalling images from New Orleans demonstrate that the world's richest country is not immune from the need to respect natural systems and to invest in their protection. This will likely be the most expensive weather-related disaster the world has ever faced."

Katrina was preceded by Cassandra. In a remarkably prescient article titled 'Drowning New Orleans' in Scientific American, Mark Fischetti reported how, "a major hurricane could swamp New Orleans under 20 feet of water, killing thousands. Human activities along the Mississippi river have dramatically increased the risk, and now only massive re-engineering of southeastern Louisiana can save the city". Such warnings were probably dismissed by the Bush administration as yet another prophecy of doom.

It is not that different in Mumbai either. For at least three decades, environmentalists had warned against reclaiming land in the mangrove swamps at the mouth of the Mithi river, which originates in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and empties out into Mahim bay. This bay has been severely constricted by sewerage and, currently, by the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. The city's leading architects have castigated environmentalists for years for opposing these coastal highways, accusing them of being anti-development and Luddites.

In Louisiana, writes Blumenthal, "the Bush administration's policy of turning over wetlands to developers almost certainly has contributed to the heightened level of the storm surge. In 1990, a federal task force began restoring lost wetlands around New Orleans. Every two miles of wetland between the Crescent City and the Gulf reduces a surge by half a foot. Bush promised a 'no net loss' wetland policy, which had been launched by his father's administration and bolstered by President Clinton. But he reversed the approach in 2003, unleashing the developers. The army corps of engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency announced they could no longer protect wetlands unless they were somehow related to interstate commerce. In response to this potential crisis, four leading environmental groups conducted a study that concluded, in 2004, that without wetlands protection New Orleans could be devastated by an ordinary -- much less a category four or five -- hurricane. 'There's no way to describe how mindless a policy that is when it comes to wetlands protection,' said one of the report's authors. The chairman of the White House's council on environmental quality dismissed the study as 'highly questionable', and boasted: 'Everybody loves what we're doing'." In 2002, The Times-Picayune wrote a prescient series titled 'Washing Away', where it predicted that such a deluge was entirely on the cards in low-lying New Orleans, which is the cradle of jazz, cajun cuisine and many other splendours.

The parallels with Mumbai are uncanny. This columnist served on the Indian People's Tribunal on the Bandra-Worli Sea Link a few years ago, where we predicted that if there was a torrential downpour, coupled with a high tide, water draining into the Mithi river may not be able to drain and since both the central and western railway tracks cross at Mahim, south Mumbai (the island city) could be severed from the rest of Greater Mumbai. Aerial footage of the havoc caused on July 26 by Star TV graphically demonstrated that the surging water was barely a couple of feet below the railway tracks. As if the disaster was not bad enough, this would have split the city in two for days together.

I am now serving on a Concerned Citizens' Commission on the flooding, an independent fact-finding exercise headed by former Supreme Court Justice P B Sawant. We were escorted around the banks of the Mithi river by Girish Raut, an avid environmentalist from Mahim, who has made it his life mission to expose the mindless reclamation in and around the Mahim Bay . To begin with, the mangroves have been remorselessly hacked away, and these - as we know from countless stories from the Asian tsunami earlier this year - serve as nature's guardians against fierce storms.

An entire new central business district has been carved out in the Bandra-Kurla Complex, and all of this is on mangroves which would have normally taken the excess rainfall. Right besides this complex lies the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), which is supposed to be the city's supreme planning body. Such is the ecological naivete of our planners that it is located in this ecologically sensitive zone. This is typical. Another instance is the new hostel that the architect Hafeez Contractor has built at Powai on the banks of the lake there, which were wetlands and ought to be strictly left alone. Nandan Nilekani of Infosys has funded this hostel, but it was surely up to experts within the IIT - who are some of the brightest minds in the world in their respective fields - to see what was happening.

Whether it is New Orleans on Mumbai, the lessons are virtually identical. Worldwatch points out that weather-related catastrophes have cost $567 billion in the last decade, even as climate change intensifies throughout the globe. Last year, these losses crossed $100 billion for the first time, setting an annual record - which is certain to be shattered with Katrina. Thus, the oft-repeated argument - which Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh is bound to raise, among others - that being a poor state (over Rs 1 lakh crore in debt) we cannot afford to take protective measures against such catastrophic occurrences, simply will not wash. The fact is that everyone, beginning with the poorest of the poor - in Mumbai as much as in New Orleans (mainly black people) - are paying the price right now and there is no justification for not spending on guarding against such storms , or at least minimising their impact. In 2004, there were 30 million "ecological refugees" in the world, people who had been displaced due to drought, floods or other such environment-related causes. According to the UN Development Programme, that number is rising inexorably.

Another lesson which these disasters teach us is that we have to diversify our supplies of energy. Fred Pearce made precisely this point in his talk at the Press Club, citing how even Shell and British Petroleum were seeing the writing on the wall and beginning to invest heavily in renewable sources of energy. One has to remember that oil was only discovered some 150 years ago and replaced coal as the world's major source only some 60 years ago. We have become so accustomed to fossil fuels that it is difficult to imagine life without them, but the future will certainly be one without much oil. Messrs Bush and Cheney are loathe to learn this lesson, because they have their hands firmly in the pockets of oil interests, but Katrina will surely drive this point home with a vengeance.

As for Mumbai, one little-learned lesson, apart from not resorting to senseless reclamation at the drop of a hard hat - it is preposterous to see Hafeez Contractor, India's most commercially successful architect, still arguing that going higher and reclaiming more land is the only solution staring Mumbai in the face - is to deter private motorised transport and encourage public modes. On July 26, even if the Chief Minister and his entourage wanted to deliver relief - not that he had any such noble objective in mind - he would not have physically been able to, for the simple reason that all the city's main arteries were clogged by the surfeit of cars. This is something that is going to paralyse Mubai in the not-too-distant future unless we act swiftly, as cities in Europe have so successfully done.

InfoChange News and Features, September 2005