A Country’s Lasting Aftershocks
By SATORU IKEUCHI, GENICHIRO TAKAHASHI and MITSUYOSHI NUMANO
The physicist Torahiko Terada wrote in 1934, “The more civilization progresses, the greater the violence of nature’s wrath.” Nearly 67 years later, his words appear prescient.
Humans have become increasingly arrogant, believing they have conquered nature. We build ever larger, ever more concentrated, ever more uniform structures. Scientists and engineers think that they are responding to the demands of society, but they have forgotten their larger responsibilities to society, emphasizing only the positive aspects of their endeavors.
The catastrophe facing the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant epitomizes this phenomenon. Although earthquakes are so frequent in Japan that it has been described as “a nation lying atop a block of tofu,” we have built some 54 nuclear reactors along the coast, vulnerable to tsunamis. It should have been foreseen that an earthquake of this magnitude might occur, and if the plant could not withstand such an event, it should not have been constructed.
In addition, the failure of power systems fueling the plant’s emergency core cooling system suggests that the models used to design the system were too lax. The decision to pump seawater into the nuclear reactor was late in coming. Each of these problems was foreseeable.
Even now, as workers at the plant continue to do their utmost, I am haunted by a nightmare in which a succession of nuclear meltdowns produces radioactive pollution greater than what was released at Chernobyl.
Until a few years ago, power usage in Japan was such that during the summer Obon holidays, when people typically return to their ancestral homes, it would have been possible to meet demand even if all nuclear power plants were turned off. Now, nuclear energy has come to be indispensable for both industry and for our daily lives. Our excessive consumption of energy has somehow become part of our very character; it is something we no longer think twice about.
Japan reached global prominence through science and technology, but we cannot deny that this has also resulted in an arrogance that has diminished our ability to imagine disaster. We have fallen into the trap of being stupefied by civilization.
— SATORU IKEUCHI, astrophysicist at the Graduate University for Advanced Studies. This article was translated by Matthew Fraleigh from the Japanese.
Hours after the earthquake, the columnist Masahiko Katsuya scrapped the article he had been writing and started over. “Surely, this is a national emergency,” his new column began. “Just when the Japanese nation had hit bottom politically, economically and morally, we suffered a blow so crushing it seemed it might well be the end of us. But we mustn’t let that happen. ... My fellows, let us fight! Fight until our vigor is restored!”
This is the rhetoric of war. And it’s not a metaphor. This disaster is the war that many Japanese have been dreading, and expecting, for a long time.
Four years ago, an article titled “War Is Our Only Hope” appeared in a political magazine. “More than a decade has passed,” the young writer wrote, “since we were set adrift in society as low-wage workers. And yet society, far from extending a helping hand, heaps insults on us, saying we lower the G.D.P., calling us lazy bums. If the peace endures, the current inequality will last until we die. We need something to break this asphyxiating stagnation and set things in motion. War is one possible solution.”
These words jolted Japanese society. It was a rejection of all the country has believed in for over 60 years.
Japan was fundamentally altered by its defeat in World War II. It chose to abjure war and to recreate itself as a wealthy country. But how long, one wonders, did our faith in peace, democracy and economic growth really last? Not long, it seems. Over the past two decades growth has faltered, economic disparity has greatly increased and faith in the political order has eroded. Though they didn’t say it, people could tell that sooner or later some disaster had to happen. That young writer only gave it a name.
Days after the earthquake, supermarket shelves were empty, long lines of cars had formed outside gas stations, parents were taking their children out of Tokyo. The television showed endless images of demolished towns; the numbers of the dead and missing climbed mercilessly upward into five digits; and refugees in dark gymnasiums lay trembling in the freezing cold, waiting for help. These are scenes from a war.
For the first time in his reign, Emperor Akihito made a televised address to the Japanese people. This, too, reminded us of his father’s radio address at the end of World War II, 66 years ago.
And now we are transfixed by the images of reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant; they’re emitting flames, exploding. When the first small, brown mushroom cloud rose, memories we had sealed off deep inside suddenly surfaced.
For 66 years, we lived the “postwar” life. Periodically someone would point out that the postwar period must surely be over by now — and yet it wasn’t. We had no other word to describe the present.
We lost many things in those years, chief among them the bond between people. Companies, families and neighbors ceased to work together, and the word kozoku was coined to describe our country: ko meaning “isolated” or “orphaned,” zoku meaning “family” or “tribe.” We were lonely, adrift.
Eiji Oguma, one of the most prominent social historians here, once asked, “How long do we have to go on using this word ‘postwar’?” He answered himself: “Forever. Because we established a new country after the defeat. When we say ‘however many years after the defeat,’ it really means ‘however many years after the founding of the nation.’ ”
“Then again,” Mr. Oguma added, “maybe we’ll only use it until the next war.”
Now, amid the chaos of the battle we are waging, we feel a familiar sense of exhilaration in the air, an intense feeling of solidarity. We can only wonder what the new Japan will look like.
— GENICHIRO TAKAHASHI, author of “Sayonara, Gangsters.” This article was translated by Michael Emmerich from the Japanese.
Many people are wondering why anyone would build nuclear power plants in a country so prone to natural disasters — and that’s a very reasonable question. But the reality is that, having accepted nuclear power as a necessary evil, we have no choice but to go on living with it.
What is hard to accept, however, is that the electrical power companies and government agencies tried to account for the disaster by explaining that the circumstances that led up to it were far outside the bounds of anything that could have been predicted — in their words, “beyond all expectations.” We have heard this phrase repeatedly on television reports.
There is something strange about this line of thinking. It even begins to appear that Japan’s vaunted scientific and technical prowess has taken on the character of a kind of myth, and that myth has deluded the nation’s politicians and business leaders. But it has been obvious all along that science and technology can deal only with things that fall within the range of what can be expected. And also that it is all too likely that some things that happen in our lives will indeed be “beyond all expectations” — and that it is precisely for this reason that we are able to live those lives. What, after all, would be the meaning of a life in which everything that happened was “within expectations”?
Every one of the images of the victims that we have seen on television has been gripping, but the one that has made the deepest impression on my heart is that of a little girl tearfully calling out for her missing mother. I believe in the purity of this girl’s heart more than I believe in the pledges of any politician, no matter how sincere. A cry of despair, to be sure, but also a sign of her unshakable will to face reality in its very harshest form.
And yet, in the end, what else is there for each of us to do but to keep on doing what we have been doing, as long and as hard as we can? From within the daily lives of each one of us, a small light of hope will begin to glow. This is what I want to believe. Would it be too much to say that a person’s ability to harbor such an unlikely belief in the power of hope is also something “beyond all expectation”?
— MITSUYOSHI NUMANO, professor of literature at the University of Tokyo. This article was translated by Joel R. Cohn from the Japanese.
July 16, 2011
Drought: A Creeping Disaster
By ALEX PRUD’HOMME
FLOODS, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and other extreme weather have left a trail of destruction during the first half of 2011. But this could be just the start to a remarkable year of bad weather. Next up: drought. In the South, 14 states are now baking in blast-furnace conditions — from Arizona, which is battling the largest wildfire in its history, to Florida, where fires have burned some 200,000 acres so far. Worse, drought, unlike earthquakes, hurricanes and other rapid-moving weather, could become a permanent condition in some regions.
Climatologists call drought a “creeping disaster” because its effects are not felt at once. Others compare drought to a python, which slowly and inexorably squeezes its prey to death.
The great aridification of 2011 began last fall; now temperatures in many states have spiked to more than 100 degrees for days at a stretch. A high pressure system has stalled over the middle of the country, blocking cool air from the north. Texas and New Mexico are drier than in any year on record.
The deadly heat led to 138 deaths last year, more than hurricanes, tornadoes or floods, and it turns brush to tinder that is vulnerable to lightning strikes and human carelessness. Already this year, some 40,000 wildfires have torched over 5.8 million acres nationwide — and the deep heat of August is likely to make conditions worse before they get better.
Climatologists disagree about what caused this remarkable dry-out. But there is little disagreement about the severity of the drought — or its long-term implications. When I asked Richard Seagar, who analyzed historical records and climate model projections for the Southwest for the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, if a perpetual drought was possible there, he replied: “You can’t really call it a drought because that implies a temporary change. The models show a progressive aridification. You don’t say, ‘The Sahara is in drought.’ It’s a desert. If the models are right, then the Southwest will face a permanent drying out.”
Growing population has increased the burden on our water supply. There are more people on earth than ever, and in many places we are using water at unsustainable rates. Cultural shifts contribute to subtle, far-reaching effects on water supplies. In 2008, for the first time, more people lived in cities than in rural communities worldwide, and water is becoming urbanized. Yet some of the world’s biggest cities — Melbourne, Australia; Barcelona, Spain; and Mexico City — have already suffered drought emergencies. Further drying could lead to new kinds of disasters. Consider Perth, Australia: its population has surpassed 1.7 million while precipitation has decreased. City planners worry that unless drastic action is taken, Perth could become the world’s first “ghost city” — a modern metropolis abandoned for lack of water.
Similar fates may await America’s booming desert cities: Las Vegas, Phoenix or Los Angeles.
Our traditional response to desiccation has been to build hydro-infrastructure — dams, pipelines, aqueducts, levees. Many advocate building even bigger dams and ambitious plumbing projects including one that calls for “flipping the Mississippi,” a scheme to capture Mississippi floodwater and pipe it to the parched West. But it is now widely believed that large water diversion projects are expensive, inefficient and environmentally destructive.
The Holy Grail of water managers is to find a drought-proof water source. Weather modification (“weather mod”), or cloud seeding, is a particularly appealing ideal. When American chemists discovered that dry ice dropped into clouds produced snow, and that clouds seeded with silver iodide produced rain, they rhapsodized about ending drought. Under perfect conditions, weather mod can increase precipitation by 10 to 15 percent. Ski areas, including Vail, Colo., hire companies to seed snow-producing clouds. And China claims that it produced 36 billion metric tons of rain a year between 1999 and 2006.
But critics, including the National Research Council, question weather mod and its efficacy. Bottom line: though evidence suggests weather mod works to a limited extent, it is unlikely to produce a major supply of water soon.
The ocean is a more promising water source. For centuries people have dreamed of converting saltwater into a limitless supply of fresh water. In 1961 President John F. Kennedy said that “if we could ever competitively, at a cheap rate, get fresh water from saltwater” it would “dwarf any other scientific accomplishments.” By 2008 over 13,000 desalination plants around the world produced billions of gallons of water a day. But “desal,” which is costly and environmentally controversial, has been slow to catch on the United States.
Recycled sewage offers an interesting, if aesthetically questionable, drinking source. (Supporters call recycled sewage “showers to flowers”; detractors condemn “toilet to tap” schemes.) Plans for sewage recycling, which involves extracting and purifying the water, are slowly gaining acceptance. Windhoek, Namibia — one of the driest places on earth — relies solely on treated wastewater for its drinking supply. In El Paso 40 percent of the tap water is recycled sewage. Fairfax, Va., gets 5 percent of its tap water from recycling effluent. But the “yuck factor” has led to a sharp debate about its merits.
MEANWHILE, global demand for water is expected to increase by two-thirds by 2025, and the United Nations fears a “looming water crisis.” To forestall a drought emergency, we must redefine how we think of water, value it, and use it.
Singapore provides a noteworthy model: no country uses water more sparingly. In the 1950s, it faced water rationing, but it began to build a world-class water system in the 1960s. Now 40 percent of its water comes from Malaysia, while a remarkable 25 to 30 percent is provided by desalination and the recycling of wastewater; the rest is drawn from sources that include large-scale rainwater collection. Demand is curbed by high water taxes and efficient technologies, and Singaporeans are constantly exhorted to conserve every drop. Most important, the nation’s water is managed by a sophisticated, well-financed, politically autonomous water authority. As a result, Singapore’s per-capita water use fell to 154 liters, about 41 gallons, a day in 2011, from 165 liters, about 44 gallons, in 2003.
America is a much larger and more complex nation. But Singapore’s example suggests we could do a far better job of educating our citizens about conservation. And we could take other basic steps: install smart meters to find out how much water we use, and identify leaks (which drain off more than 1 trillion gallons a year); use tiered water pricing to encourage efficiency; promote rainwater harvesting and wastewater recycling on a large scale. And like Singapore, we could streamline our Byzantine water governance system and create a new federal water office — a water czar or an interagency national water board — to manage the nation’s supply in a holistic way.
No question this will be an expensive, politically cumbersome effort. But as reports from New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida make plain, business as usual is not a real option. The python of drought is already wrapped tightly around us, and in weeks — and years — to come it will squeeze us dangerously dry.
Alex Prud'Homme is the author of “The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the 21st Century.”
Pakistan: Devastating flood, one year later.
Devastating floods, driven by unprecedented monsoon rains, began late in July 2010, leaving one-fifth of Pakistan submerged. The rains in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan regions of Pakistan directly affected 20 million people mostly by destruction of property, livelihood and infrastructure. It left 2,000 people dead and 11 million homeless. In this post, we revisit some of those affected as the monsoon season approaches the region again. The last five images by Reuters photographer Adrees Latif (click on the image to fade the photograph) show us his subjects almost one year later, as he brought them back to the place where he photographed them during the 2010 flooding. -- Paula Nelson (34 photos total)
Over one million affected by floods in Sindh: Qaim Ali Shah
Published: August 16, 2011
KARACHI: Chief Minister Sindh, Qaim Ali Shah has said more than one million people have been affected by the recent floods in six districts of the province, Express 24/7 reported on Tuesday.
Speaking to the media at Sukkur Airport, Shah said that 1,100,000 people had fallen victim to floods in interior Sindh.
He said 123 flood relief camps had been set up in Badin and the army, navy and civil administration had been mobilised to begin relief work.
The chief minister said flood victims had been provided with accommodation in schools and Watan Cards would be distributed to the victims soon.
Badin, Tando Muhammad Khan, Mirpur Khas calamity hit
The government of Sindh has declared Badin, Tando Muhammad Khan and Mirpur Khas calamity hit areas following fresh floods in the province.
Rescue operations are currently underway and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has ordered the use of helicopters to help with the effort.
Recent rains have caused flooding and destruction of infrastructure and crops in 24 out of 30 union councils in Mirpur Khas.
Around 120 relief camps have been set up in the region for 18,000 people.
In Badin, breaches in canals have not been repaired as yet. More than 45,000 people have been shifted to 170 relief centres set up by the district administration.
Rescuers are facing problems in the inundated villages due to absence of a road network.
Six Union Councils of Mathi District have also been inundated and all schools across the district have been converted into relief camps to shelter the victims.
The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) had earlier said over 200,000 people have been affected in flood-hit areas in interior Sindh.
The authority says a hundred villages have been flooded in Badin after a breach in a major salinity drain widened further to 200 feet.
UN agencies monitoring situation
United Nations humanitarian agencies are closely watching the flood situation in affected areas of Punjab and Sindh and waiting for a green signal from the government to start relief operations.
World Food Program (WFP) spokesman Amjad Jamal said around 750,000 people have been affected in Punjab & Sindh, 25 have died in Sindh and about 50,000 others were displaced in rain-hit areas.
He said humanitarian agencies can only start relief operations after a written request from the government.
“We are ready to start relief operations and begin work in rain affected areas as soon as a request is received. First government would fulfill its responsibility of relief operation and if authorities feel affected people need operation on large scale in that situation they will call UN humanitarian agencies,” he said.
October 3, 2011
Trial Over Earthquake in Italy Puts Focus on Probability and Panic
By HENRY FOUNTAIN
The manslaughter trial of six seismologists and a government official in the central Italian city of L’Aquila, stemming from what the authorities say was a failure to warn the population before a deadly 2009 earthquake, has outraged many scientists. Thousands have signed petitions protesting the prosecution as anti-science.
But the trial, which resumed Saturday, has also focused attention on a vexing problem in earthquake-prone regions around the world: how to effectively communicate the risk of potential disaster. Whatever the merits of the L’Aquila case, scientists and government officials have difficulty conveying what they know about the risk of earthquakes in ways that help prepare the public without sowing panic.
“People are expecting much more information, in particular quantitative information,” said Thomas H. Jordan, a professor at the University of Southern California and director of the Southern California Earthquake Center. “Coming clean with what you know is being demanded by the public.”
Earthquakes differ from other types of natural disasters. Meteorologists can track a hurricane with precision, but seismologists cannot predict exactly when and where an earthquake will occur. Scientists have condemned the Italian prosecution for this reason, saying the defendants are on trial for failing to do something that is impossible.
What seismologists are increasingly able to do, however, is forecast the likelihood that a quake will occur in a certain area over a certain time. Statistical analysis shows, for example, that some seismic activity — a minor quake or a swarm of very small ones — increases the probability of a larger, destructive earthquake in the same area.
But the probabilities are still very small, and they become even smaller with time. Given a low-probability forecast of an event that has potentially high consequences, the problem, Dr. Jordan said, becomes “what the heck do you do with that kind of information?”
That was a question that the Italian defendants faced. In the months before a magnitude 6.3 quake hit L’Aquila on April 6, 2009, killing more than 300, the area had experienced an earthquake swarm. That probably increased the likelihood of a major earthquake in the near future by a factor of 100 or 1,000, Dr. Jordan said, but the probability remained very low — perhaps 1 in 1,000.
But there was a wild card in L’Aquila that complicated the situation. As the earthquake swarm continued over several months, a local man who is not a scientist issued several predictions of a large earthquake — specific as to date and location — based on measurements of radon, a radioactive gas that is released as rocks fracture.
The predictions, none of which proved accurate, increased public anxiety in the city — so much so that the Italian government convened a meeting of a national risk-forecasting commission, including the seismologists and the government official, in L’Aquila on March 30.
At the meeting, the seismologists noted that it was possible, though unlikely, that the seismic activity could be a sign that a larger quake was imminent. They also noted that there was always some risk in L’Aquila, which has a history of earthquakes. But in a news conference afterward, the message to the public became garbled, with the government official assuring that there was no danger.
“The government ended up looking like it was saying, ‘No, there’s not going to be a big earthquake,’ ” when the scientists had not precluded the possibility, said Dr. Jordan, who was the chairman of a commission established by the Italian government after the quake to look at the forecasting issue.
The statement by the official, who is not a seismologist, violated a cardinal rule of risk communication, which is that those involved should speak only to their expertise, said Dennis Mileti, an emeritus professor of behavioral science at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “This person should not have been speaking,” said Dr. Mileti, who has studied risk communication.
In general, said Michael Lindell, a professor at Texas A & M, scientists should advise emergency managers about the likelihood of events, and then the managers should make the yes-or-no decisions about whether to order an evacuation or urge the public to make other, simpler preparations. But often the roles become confused.
“When you step over the boundary outside your area of expertise, then there aren’t necessarily any warning signs,” Dr. Lindell said.
The L’Aquila news conference did not fill what was essentially an information vacuum, Dr. Jordan said. “One of the principles that social science has shown is that the public wants to hear things from people they trust,” he said. “They want to hear things repeated.
“You don’t want to put out information just when there’s a seismic crisis, because people then don’t have the context for this kind of information,” he added. “You want people to get used to how these things ebb and flow.”
California, with its active seismic zones, has a system for communicating risks to the public on a regular basis — though it, too, has flaws, Dr. Jordan said.
Just a few weeks before the L’Aquila quake, an analysis of an earthquake swarm in Southern California showed an increased likelihood of a major earthquake near the southern end of the San Andreas fault. While the probability was small, it was high enough that a scientific group decided to advise the state’s emergency management agency. (In the end, no quake occurred.)
Even if the information at the L’Aquila news conference had been correct and the public had been warned there was a slightly higher risk, Dr. Mileti said, it would probably have made little difference. “One person saying once ‘You don’t have to worry’ is probably not why they didn’t do what they might have done to protect themselves,” he said. “Humans are hard-wired to deny low-probability, high-impact events.”
The only way to overcome that, he continued, is through constant communication. Once-a-year earthquake drills, like those in California, are not enough. The messages have to be everywhere, repeated ad nauseam.
“If you want to sell earthquake preparation in a way that it affects human behavior,” he said, “you have to sell it like Coca-Cola.”
Many residents of the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts didn’t get too worried when Hurricane Isaac was bearing down on them recently, perhaps in part because it was ranked as only Category 1. They might have been expecting a drizzle like New York City got a year ago from its Category 1 storm, Irene, rather than the drenching that other areas suffered from that storm. There can be a similar disconnect in how we think about earthquakes; the quakes in China on Friday, all less than magnitude 5.8, killed dozens of people and destroyed thousands of homes.
How could we improve the rating systems for natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes?
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