Friday, September 25, 2015

The Most Interesting Disaster is the One that does not happen

By Roop Singh, RCCC
Climate extremes like floods, droughts, and landslides occur constantly around the world. Yet we very rarely hear about the instances when an extreme climate event happens, and there is no mass suffering or casualty.  
These “non disasters” are crucial moments in which we can learn more about what makes people resilient to climate shocks. By studying these non-disasters, we can better understand the social mechanisms, infrastructure, government programs, policies, or other coping mechanisms that make one population more resilient to climate shocks than another.
To exemplify how some populations are more resilient than others, consider the scenario in which two cities are hit with a rainfall of similar magnitude, but only one of them becomes devastated by flooding. This would be an opportunity to learn how the ability of people to anticipate, adapt to, and absorb climate shocks differs from place to place.
We have exactly this case study if we compare the floods earlier this summer in Brooklyn, New York and Nairobi, Kenya.
Kenyan school boy/ Viktor Dobai
Although both floods received news coverage because they occurred in major cities, the coverage in Nairobi was more extensive, even attracting international media such as Al Jazeera and the BBC, and resulted in a rousing #Nairobifloods hashtag on twitter where residents shared information and their frustrations.
In Brooklyn, the news coverage was local and relatively superficial because there was minimal damage and no casualties to talk about.
There was something missing in the coverage of these two events: why was the Brooklyn flood only a minor nuisance, and why wasn’t the Nairobi flooding an even bigger disaster?
One reason could be the early warnings issued in Brooklyn by the New York National Weather Service. The warnings urged residents to “move to higher ground now” and “act to quickly save your life.” Drivers were advised to “turn around, don’t drown” when faced with even shallow floodwaters.
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