The verdant hills of Tizi Ouzou in Northern Eastern Algeria are normally covered in olive trees and scattered with small villages. But in August 2021 the region was engulfed by multiple forest fires which reduced the trees and villages to ashes.
The Algerian government were unprepared and despite a large military budget was forced to borrow fire fighting planes from France to try and combat the fires. Extremely high temperatures of up to 46 C and strong winds created the perfect conditions for forest fires.
The flames engulfed left many homeless and cost the lives of 9o people. The fires caused more damage than all Algeria’s forest fires in the last decade combined.
The government was quick to blame arsonists and separatist groups, ignoring the role of climate change. Perhaps influenced by the fact that 90 percent of Algerian government revenues come from oil and gas.
However, many Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Turkey and Italy have been affected by record breaking temperatures and devastating forest fires this summer. Indicating this is a regional issue which will only worsen over time.
As climate change’s grip tightens across the world we will face a new unprecedented wave of natural disasters. Below I look at what this means and how governments, NGOs and businesses can start planning for the worst.
Defence against the Elements
Since the dawn of civilisation humans have constantly developed technology to protect themselves from the elements and natural disasters. From simple shelters to robust modern buildings, irrigation systems to earthquake proof skyscrapers humans have discovered ingenious ways to protect themselves from an often hostile environment.
But now nature has returned to reclaim a debt. Climate change influenced conditions have become more apparent over the past few years. The frequency, severity and cost of floods, storms and extreme heat have all increased sharply the world over.
Temperature records have been smashed across Canada, Southern Europe and the Middle East. Every year carbon dioxide levels continue to increase unchecked natural disasters will continue to increase in strength and number.
Warmer weather creates more moisture in the atmosphere. This moisture creates the fuel for more storms, hurricanes, heavy rainfall and typhoons. Rising sea levels (thanks to melting icecaps) along with storms creates the conditions for coastal surges and the encroachment of seas into ocean facing cities.
Climate change mitigation measures remain in effect stalled and a zero-carbon world is a distant dream. This means that the world must plan for more natural disasters.
Recent devastation in Germany and the US reminded us that rich countries are not immune to natural disasters. Poorer countries are likely to suffer more simply because they lack the resources to prepare and recover from these disasters. Below I look how rich and poor countries alike should be preparing.
How to Prepare for Natural Disasters
Firstly, identifying where and how disasters will strike is critical.
Climate risk forecasting is an uncertain science, but major strides are being made in this field. Satellite data now provides and unprecedented real time insight into what is happening in terms of climate and weather across the globe. We can understand climate patterns, changes in land usage and real impact of natural disasters ever more clearly.
This information combined with historical data to determine how climate risks, drought, extreme heat, flooding risk and sea level rise may play out over a particular region.
Preparing for a New World
Secondly, governments, civil society and where necessary individuals need to organise and begin preparing for a more unstable climate.
While many countries are well prepared for “familiar” disasters. Climate chaos will throw up more extreme and frequent and often unfamiliar disasters. New York experienced widespread flooding due to storms twice in a decade. The city was unprepared for this kind of emergency, its infrastructure not built to withstand such huge volumes of water.
Governments need to bolster disaster relief agencies, police forces, the military and local governments to tackle disasters before they strike. Recent forest fires in Turkey left the government caught the government by surprise making the impact of the fires far worse.
The Turkish Government’s failure to prepare and respond to forest fires was linked to falling political support. The Turkish President was widely mocked for throwing out bags of tea from a car to people left homeless by forest fires.
Collaboration is key. By working and communicating effectively together before there is an incident, many different organisations can be ready when disaster strikes. Successful coordination will mean each organisation can focus on their own specific role without fear they are not fulfilling their duties. Naturally many plans fail when they meet reality, but the very act of making a plan is an end itself.
As President Eisenhower said: “Plans are worthless, but planning is essential”.
Thirdly, another form of planning is rebuilding infrastructure for the age of climate change. Extreme heat, floods and a hungry rising sea will all exact a toll on our existing buildings, roads and ports. Infrastructure will have be rethought and rebuilt with climate change in mind or it will face rapid obsolescence as climate related disasters take their toll.
The first step to rebuilding infrastructure is a change in mindset. The days of predictable climate are over and planners need to recognise this fact. So many regions and cities were built for 1 in 1000 years or 100 year floods. These places are now experiencing these once a decade or more.
Houston has experienced three once in 500 year storms in the last 40 years. When key infrastructure such as power and water is knocked out in a underprepared city, the consequences are devastating.
Now the emphasis should be incorporating flexibility and resilience into infrastructure planning. This could mean designing roads with smart signalling systems which can used when the it floods.
The Netherlands for centuries lived with the threat of the sea and much of the country below sea-level. The Dutch built dykes and dams to withstand huge storm surges and floods. In order to prosper societies will need to build infrastructure that can live with these new extremities.
Different infrastructure types
Transportation is highly vulnerable to climate change. For example extreme heat can quickly ground flights and strand passengers. High temperatures make is dangerous for planes to take off because it affects the lift that allows aircraft to fly. Roads and rail will also suffer in high or low temperatures. Melting tarmac and warped rail lines or cracking under pressure in icy conditions.
Electric grids are also highly vulnerable. Extreme heat increases demand for air conditioning which place high demands on grids. At the same high temperatures put pressure on equipment (not designed for such conditions) which can result in blackouts.
Water treatment and supply systems are also highly exposed to flooding, drought and extreme weather. Any outages to wastewater services are often followed by outbreaks of water borne diseases such as e-coli and cholera. This is particularly true when outages are combined with flooding. Developing countries are at additional risk as they often lack the funds to build resilient waste water systems.
Atlantis as reality
A sea level rise of just half a metre will put over 500 coastal cities under threat by 2050. For cities already exposed to hurricanes and typhoons this risk will be even higher as these cities will be exposed to storm surges.
Careful planning is required to defend against the sea. Barriers, sea walls, pumps and natural defences like mangrove forests can all slow the encroachment of the sea. But as the seas rises the cost of these defences will be weighed up against abandoning coastal settlements altogether.
The Indonesian capital Jakarta is steadily sinking as it subsides into the ground. Millions of residents in Jakarta pump groundwater from below the city which causes it to sink. The Indonesian government have decided to move the capital to Borneo in attempt to escape the floods and overcrowding that afflict Jakarta.
What are the Solutions?
Climate chaos will force the world to adapt. Extreme conditions will break much of our existing infrastructure forcing cities to retreat or be abandoned to the elements. Other cities with greater foresight and resources can rebuild infrastructure now. Rethinking everything from roads to telecommunications to utilities to withstand extreme heat, or regular flooding will present the best chance of success.
Governments can act by preventing construction in vulnerable areas and mandating climate risk planning in all large infrastructure projects. They can also play a key role in developing early warning systems and coordinating disaster preparations.
Capital also needs to be deployed to rebuild infrastructure to make it more resilient. Governments and multilateral Banks will also need to create larger recovery funds and nurture disaster recovery insurance options particularly for poorer countries who will have to recover from multiple disasters.
The current climate induced drought in Southern Madagascar is an example of what to expect. Thousands of people in Southern tip of the island have been pushed to the brink of famine as multiple harvests have failed. Local people have been forced to eat locusts and beg. The drought has left 1.1 million people experiencing food insecurity.
Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries. Its position is made worst by the lack of tourist revenue thanks to the global pandemic. On its own Madagascar lacks the resources to alleviate the suffering. The World Food Program has stepped in to try and provide supplies but faces a tough battle in reaching people during a pandemic.
Hurricanes, earthquakes, flooding, typhoons, volcanos, extreme heat and cold and the many other challenges the natural world throws up have all existed long before human civilisation. Now these phenomena threaten the world as never before in spite of the ingenious infrastructure devised to protect us from it. Climate change acts as magnifier, making existing risks more dangerous and frequent.
Ultimately, more resources running into trillions of dollars on a yearly basis will have to be diverted into climate resilient infrastructure, adaptation and disaster management to face a chaotic world.