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An early warning of cascade

This morning’s news was a perfect example of media reporting priorities. War – or at least the rather unlikely prospect of a war between Iran and the USA – has always been the media’s favourite topic.  Not least because they no longer need to pretend that they are not engaged in propaganda.  Meanwhile, the far greater – but harder to define – threat to humanity, the environmental catastrophe that is currently manifesting as massive bushfires in Australia, is relegated to third place behind the entirely trivial Golden Globe awards.  Entirely absent from the coverage – at least here in the UK – has been any consideration of how Australians might have to respond to the kind of environmental event that is likely to become more common as time goes on.

It was ever thus, I fear.  Back in 1991 I was packed off to Kinmel Bay in North Wales to carry out research into what had happened to flood victims after the February 1990 flood disaster.  Since the media had ceased reporting on the disaster months before, the assumption had been that everything was back to normal.  What I actually found was several hundred people still homeless, and hundreds more struggling to recover emotionally and financially both from the disaster itself, and from the inappropriate responses of state and private bodies in the aftermath.

Writing about the aftermath of the 1972 Buffalo Creek flood disaster, Beverley Raphael coined the term “second disaster” to describe how official responses to disaster can be as devastating as the disaster itself.  Which brings us back to the official (non) response to the current bushfires raging across the east of Australia.  Before Christmas, Australians had been demanding that Prime Minister Scott Morrison abandon his holiday and return to take charge of the emergency.  Today, many of those Australians are wishing he’d stayed on his tropical island where he might at least not make matters any worse than they already were.

Australian culture is more self-reliant than British culture – where large numbers would very likely suffocate while waiting for a government official to tell them what to do.  As a result, in places where it no longer makes sense to stay put and fight the fires, people have begun to self-evacuate.  Despite official fears of panic or inaction, this capacity for communities to come together to deal with disaster and to support each other or, where necessary, to leave the affected area, has observed many times.  As Canadian disaster specialist Joe Scanlon noted:

“Although the reality of disaster is well documented, emergency plans are not adjusted to this reality… Why aren’t plans adjusted to reality? One answer is that although individuals perform well in mass emergencies – they can look around and see what needs to be done vicinity — organizations are not so effective. It is difficult for them to know what is going on – in widespread disasters and catastrophes with communications in disarray and transportation routes often blocked, it takes time to gather accurate information. There is also too much to do with limited resources. But there are also problems because officials tend to believe and act on myth.

“The first myth – one that has led organizations to hold back warnings — is that individuals will not be able to cope with accurate warning messages and that panic will occur. In fact, panic does not occur in threatening situations…

“The second myth is that victims will be dazed and confused and in shock, unable to take care of themselves and other survivors. This is why emergency agencies focus on search and rescue and why rescue teams are rushed in to assist after destructive events and explains the emphasis on evacuation. Even in the most destructive events, survivors do the search and rescue: after the Mexico City earthquake, local people did 99 per cent of the rescue work. Even in Tangshan, China in 1976, when an earthquake led to a quarter of a million deaths, many survived because they took immediate protective action…”

Scanlon’s paper – written in the late 1990s – came at a time when academics concerned with disaster management began to argue that there were two types of disaster that had very different impacts.  Natural disasters such as earthquakes, famines, forest fires and major floods had a disproportionate impact on developing and under-developed regions that lacked the resources and the infrastructure to respond.  In the developed regions, in contrast, the major threat was from smaller incidents which interact with the complexity of an advanced urban economy to undermine critical infrastructure systems.  For example, a relatively small road traffic accident at a major junction point – such as the M25 motorway outside London – can rapidly halt the movement of key materials, equipment and people; undermining apparently unaffected infrastructure elsewhere.

Environmental issues like climate change were understood to be an issue at that time, but the full scale of the potential disasters was not easily understood.  Scanlon began to grasp the threat when he warned that:

“Time will bring changes in the type of events that occur and their impact… as more and more Canadians live in large urban centres the possibility that an incident will have major impact grows. If the Edmonton tornado had occurred 50 years earlier it would been unnoticed. In another half century the same event would cause greater destruction. Changing life styles alter the ability to cope. Rural residents used to have resources to sustain themselves in isolation. Now most are commuters, confident that they can get needed resources in minutes by driving to a nearby store…

“Another concern is the persistent belief that somehow new developments in technology will solve problems. The cell or mobile phone was hailed as the answer to crisis communications. Yet it failed continually in the United Kingdom and in Canada. The ice storm showed that it might be impossible to assess failures except by direct personal observation. This was true for traffic lights, gas, telephones and electric power. In all these cases, the computerized telemetry systems failed…

On a small scale, problems of this kind emerged last week in the small town of Sussex Inlet, as reported by Nine Now News:

“A number of towns on the South Coast have been cut off for days and are running out of supplies… ‘They were stealing from the supermarket because they had to feed the family and they had no money,’ shopkeeper Sue Mazzuoli told A Current Affair

“’You can’t access petrol, gas ran out, chaos at the supermarket,’ she said.  ‘All the ATMs are down, and the young people these days travel with no money, so they were even more panicked.’”

In the grand scheme of things, this may appear trivial; but it points to some unpleasant home truths about our lack of ability to cope with the kind of environmental disasters that await us in the very near future.  As the US authorities discovered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, evacuations require considerable logistical planning if they are not to add to the disaster.  Simply using the media to urge people to take to their cars and flee can cause even more problems than it solves if no provision has been made to ensure that the fleeing population has access to sufficient food, water and fuel to make the journey.  Leaving people stranded in traffic – possibly still inside the disaster zone – with no means of further progress and insufficient food and clean drinking water may prove to be worse than having them stay put.

This may be a close call when it comes to small towns along the southeast coast; but in the event that Australia’s heatwave and bushfires continue in the days and weeks to come, then the far greater question of what to do about Sydney’s 5 million residents will have to be addressed.  This is where the old distinction between natural and complex disasters breaks down.  The combination of drought and bushfires that is currently nibbling at the outskirts of Australia’s most populous city has raised the spectre of a large scale cascading collapse of critical infrastructure; beginning with that most basic of human needs – clean drinking water.  As VOA News reported last week:

“Australian authorities said Friday they are focused on protecting water plants, pumping stations, pipes and other infrastructure from intense bushfires surrounding Sydney, the country’s largest city… Warragamba Dam is 65km (40 miles) west of Sydney, catching water flowing from the mountains.  It is at 44.8% capacity, down from almost being full less than three years ago, as a prolonged drought ravages the continent’s east.”

There is nothing new in this.  Scientists have for years been writing papers about the potential impact of drought and bushfires on Australia’s water infrastructure.  And even as this year’s bushfire season was just beginning, journalists were raising concerns about the impact of sustained drought.  For example, in September Nicole Trian at France24 wrote:

“Day Zero is pending in at least a dozen Australian country towns stretching from the northern state of Queensland – known for its sprawling banana plantations and tropical heatwaves – to the state of New South Wales, whose capital Sydney is the country’s most populous city.

“Successive droughts and the extra water needed to fight intense bushfires have caused an unprecedented shortage, with these regions now facing the prospect of the taps running out within a matter of months.

“Day Zero, as it’s called, would mark the start of water rationing and the day residential taps are turned off – literally – with large numbers of households and businesses having to go to local collection sites to fetch water.

“Water security remains almost non-existent for many rural communities, with 10 towns at risk of running dry in six months if it doesn’t rain and if water infrastructure isn’t improved. The wider consequences have meant that many shops are on the brink of shutting and the desperation has even led to water theft. Temperatures are 10°C above average and 130 bushfires continue to burn in New South Wales and Queensland, which this year is suffering its worst start to the bushfire season on record.”

Trian notes that Australia’s problems are compounded because its government and a majority of its electorate chose to prioritise the economic imperative of maintaining coal exports to China over making preparations for coping with the hotter and drier climate which has become the new normal.  As climate scientist Zeke Hausfather points out, the 1.5c rise in temperature may not be the only cause of the fires; but it has made them a lot worse and a lot harder to deal with.

The threat to Sydney today comes less from the fires themselves than from the potential fallout.  As Kayla Ritter at Circle of Blue reports:

“In the past week, bushfires burning on the outskirts of Sydney edged closer to Lake Burragorang, the city’s main water supply. Firefighters say all but a ‘small portion’ of land surrounding the lake has burned, and crews spent the holidays trying to protect the catchment. 

“’The majority of the perimeter of Lake Burragorang has been impacted, and Wollondilly and Coxs rivers, with significant quantities of ash flowing,’ Stuart Khan, a professor at the University of NSW, told The Sydney Morning Herald. Khan says the risks from the bushfires are twofold. The fires could destroy pipes and pumping stations. Ash from the blazes could also degrade the water supply.”

The ash problem comes with a particular irony in that the greatest risk will follow the heavy rainfall that many people are now depending on to quell the fires.  Runoff from the burned land in the water catchment could result in toxic chemicals entering the water supply.  According to Paulina Duran and Jonathan Barrett at Reuters barriers have been put in place to prevent runoff entering the water supply, and other measures have been taken to protect the water infrastructure itself.  One can only hope that these prove more effective than some of the other official responses to the emergency.

The greater problem, though, is that Australia’s climate is not about to get any better.  And while bush fires have been around for millennia, it is only relatively recently that humans have built massive cities in their path.  And so even if Sydney survives this time, it may not be so lucky next time around.  And one day – 5, 10, 20 or 50 years from now – the city will become uninhabitable at anything close to the current population size.  Which raises the thorny question of what – if anything – might be done to address the problem while there is still time, energy and resources with which to respond?

Presumably some people will self-evacuate; particularly if they have relatives or friends in unaffected regions.  But the ability to self-evacuate is limited – you need money and you need enough fuel, food and water to survive the trip.  Moreover, the sudden influx of people into the places that had avoided disaster may be widely unwelcome; particularly if the disaster has already begun to cascade; and those communities are also struggling to survive.

Modern urbanised economies are far from self-sufficient; depending upon just-in-time supply chains to provide them with everything they need.  In general, rural communities – where they haven’t been colonised by commuters – are insulated to a degree by the requirement that they carry stock.  City dwellers, though, are used to electricity at the flick of a switch, water at the turn of a tap and telecommunications at the press of a button.  However, the interruption of any one of these can quickly spread to the others.  For example, a power cut will render water and fuel pumps inoperable, causing shortages of those too.  Later, as phone batteries run down, telecommunications fail.  Over time, electronic banking and the network of ATMs fail forcing people to turn to bartering or theft.  Eventually, the key workers who operate the machinery of a city also fail as their access to necessities like water and food disappears.  Thus far, cascades of this kind have been temporary because the outside world has been mobilised to provide relief and to kick-start the economy in the aftermath.  Australia’s water supply problem is of concern because it is far from clear that the outside world would be able to provide more than partial and temporary relief.  Certainly, aid agencies have flown bottled water into disaster zones – most recently in Puerto Rico – but this has been intended as a stop-gap measure while local infrastructure is being repaired.  Nobody would seriously contemplate permanently maintaining Puerto Rico’s three million inhabitants solely with bottled water flown or shipped in from the US mainland; still less maintaining a city of 5 million on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean.

Nowhere is it written that nature has to provide drinking water just because you were foolish enough to build a city of millions of inhabitants in a location that could not sustain a population a tenth of that without the infrastructure of a globalised economy coupled to a relatively stable and benign climate.  And as both the global economy and the stable climate goes away, the question is, exactly how do you de-grow a major city?

Sydney is not alone in this, of course.  As Trian explains:

“Australia isn’t the first country to face the prospect of a Day Zero. Brazil’s Sao Paulo teetered on the brink in 2015 as did India’s sixth-largest city, Chennai, in mid-2018. South Africa narrowly averted its Day Zero last year after prolonged low rainfall and a particularly brutal drought gripped the city of Cape Town: The city’s water supply was close to being shut off as its freshwater reservoir hovered just above 13.5 percent of full capacity. Had Day Zero been triggered, it would have been the first instance of a major city in modern times running out of water.”

Nor is drought the only threat to large globalised cities.  London – the money laundering capital of the world – is threatened by the opposite problem.  Too much rainfall is regularly impacting several of London’s lowest-lying districts; but there is an even bigger threat from the combined effect of sea level rise and southeast England’s gradual subsidence into the North Sea.  The central district of London – which includes the Bank of England and the Houses of Parliament – currently depends upon the Thames Barrier to avoid flooding.  In future even the barrier will be insufficient to prevent widespread flooding.  As with Sydney, the questions this poses are just how long can we continue to defend an ultimately unsustainable city? And at what point does it make sense to abandon it?

In practice, of course, we will not even contemplate the possibility of abandoning large global cities – not least because nobody has the first idea how to actually do so.  Indeed, the likely disruption this would cause might prove as devastating as the disaster we would be seeking to avoid.  And so, each time cities like London, Cape Town and Sydney dodge a bullet, our governments will do what authorities always do.  We will treat the “near miss” as evidence that our emergency response was up to the task and that we have no need for further action.  Of interest, when I conducted research into disasters for the British Home Office in the 1990s, I found that every one of the string of disasters that affected Britain in the 1980s and early 1990s had been preceded by a “near miss” which the authorities took as vindication for what were to prove to be wholly inadequate responses.  Sydney will – hopefully – avoid a cascading collapse this time around.  But if it does, that is no cause for celebration.  Like hundreds of other unsustainable major cities around the planet, its residents need to urgently consider the fact that climate change is not going away; and the energy and resources required to maintain the illusion of sustainability are dwindling.

We are long past the point where banning plastic straws and erecting wind turbines is going to save the day.  Only radical changes to our way of life are going to allow people to survive… and an awful lot of us – particularly those of us who live in the big cities – are not going to make it.

As you made it to the end…

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