The Earth Moves; We Hurt, Colltalers
The mega earthquake that hit Nepal Saturday has already triggered a familiar set of obvious realizations, callous statements, and the usual few insights that could potentially make a difference going forward, but most likely will soon be ignored by all.
We’re sure that those who can help, will, and in fact, we wish to express our sadness and solidarity with the ones having their time of reckoning. But we can’t help it but see a worn out sequence of reactions about to play out as it has many times before.
As aftershocks and the search for victims continue, news coverage will be centered on the devastation and on calls for international aid in the weeks ahead, with the occasional proverbial digression about the unpredictability of natural disasters.
Not to be flippant, but one can be sure that there’ll be wall-to-wall reporting, dramatic rescue footage, and the customary show of human solidarity, which is authentic but fits a bit too snugly into the calculated media approach to this kind of tragedy.
And just as predictably, a few weeks down the road, news organizations are bound to switch gears, and divert our attention elsewhere – in all likelihood, to something tragic as well. For all but those directly affected by the quake, it’ll be a new morning.
For the Nepalese, of course, this darkest of the nights will remain just as bleak and insufferable for months and possibly years. Just as it happened in 1934, when the slightly more powerful Nepal-Bihar earthquake killed an estimated 17,000 people.
Casualties may be higher this time around. While it remains one of the world’s poorest countries, just as it was in the 1930s, Nepal’s population has swelled to 28-million people, almost six times what it was then, in a mostly chaotic and inordinate growth.
If there’s a parallel to Nepal’s quagmire it is, unfortunately, equally impoverished Haiti. The 2010 quake killed 200 thousand of its 10 million population, despite being less powerful than the one in Asia, and five years later, some parts of the country still look as if it it all happened yesterday. $10 billion in international aid has seemingly sunk in the open sewages of capital Port-au-Prince.
We’ll purposely skip over the aforementioned grandstanding we’re condemned to witness in times of grief and human misery, but let’s see what kind of non-obvious insights we can gather, without pontificating too much on someone else’s worst nightmare.
First, there’s the glaring irony that Mount Everest and the Himalayas, de facto drivers of Nepal’s economy, are also where a major earthquake seems to take place every 80 years or so. The giant mountains grow four millimeters annually exactly because of the unbelievable pressure between two tectonic plates under the Kathmandu Valley rubbing against each other for millions of years.
But that’s the inevitable part of the equation. Overpopulation, poor construction standards, and simply lack of urban planning, on the other hand, are at least technically, not as inevitable. Then again, considering the world’s current income distribution, no one is surprised that poverty is the biggest aggravating factor whenever a natural disaster occurs. See Haiti, Earthquake, 2010.
There, as it’ll likely happen in Nepal, help came promptly, in the form of food and health supplies, and temporary shelter, along with an army of volunteers, dedicated soldiers and well-intentioned celebrities, ready to make an immediate difference.
But even as they did, it was a limited run. Another army, considerably more sinister, of opportunist investors, took over and made an easy buck out of the usually rushed rebuilding efforts. As a recent report by Vice has shown, most were themselves, or in some capacity, government contractors, with a pre-fab agenda and no intention to address the needs and concerns of the locals.
Finally, among the long list of valuable insights that tend to be quickly overlooked and forgotten just a few months after a catastrophic event like that, there’s the confusion between what has been destroyed, and what was already broken way before it. Political insularity is a major deterrent to any continuous collaboration with international relief groups.
There seems to be always a moment when either the outside help believes that it knows better what should be done to mitigate the consequences of the disaster, or the local powers that be decide that it’s time to kick out the intrusive foreigners.
Relief organizations, such as the Red Cross and others, are not designed for long term rebuilding, and usually spend a great deal of donated funds in their own bureaucracy and administrative needs. On the other hand, groups focused on more progressive goals, such as human rights, for instance, as the Carter Center, often clash with local authorities and become prey of their own mission.
In other words, when the media spotlights are turned off, and the international aid runs its course, it’s still up to the people affected to pick themselves up and carry on. The compounding tragedy of a disaster of such magnitude, as the Nepal earthquake will certainly prove to be, is that it disables and handicaps the already precarious resources that could help them do just that.
Speaking of earthquakes, and irony, this one only reaffirms a quite obvious realization about natural disasters: how little almost three centuries of technological progress is actually capable of doing to alleviate their reach and consequences.
Yes, we can predict with a bit more accuracy at least where a quake is likely to strike, but we’re far from knowing when, in advance, or preventing people from settling in areas that are known for being prone to violent earth moves. One doesn’t need to be cynical to say that in only one particular we’ve become infinitely better than our predecessors: counting the number of victims.
But while we can’t foresee a disaster with any clarity, we’ve become astonishingly better at actually provoking them. Take hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for example. Two separate studies released this past week showed that ‘man-made’ quakes are now frequent and intense in the U.S., in areas not near fault lines, whose attrition used to be the most likely cause for them.
Oklahoma, for one, is now the leading earthquake state, with a rate that jumped from less than two a year before 2008 to a whopping 2 1/2 daily temblor. It beats California, which sits on a notorious fault line that has caused the biggest one in the country.
Both the U.S. Geological Survey and the FEMA studies point to the increase of fracking, a procedure that injects tons of water miles below the surface to break shale rocks and release natural gas. Besides the amount of water that it uses, it also mixes it with dangerous chemicals, which contaminates underground reserves and winds up ruining the land that sits above the wells.
Natural gas production has grown exponentially and its advocates, mainly the oil and gas industry, defend the procedure as a pragmatic alternative to energy from burning fuels. Such contention is, obviously flawed and biased towards the industry, according to organizations fighting for more benign alternatives to supply our energy needs, such as wind and solar power.
While the argument for natural gas is based on solid profits and investments already in place, two factors the wind and solar technology still lack, their proponents never mention the environmental damage that fracking is wreaking across the U.S.
Now that the evidence is becoming overwhelming, and the risks of a man-made earthquake happening near a major urban center have proved to be too real to be ignored, it’s possible that public awareness will rise and demand a halt in fracking projects.
We’re not holding our breath, however, lest counting on a tragedy to happen, just so we can say, we told you so, is morally questionable. But if Nepal and recorded history offer us some valuable insights, then we mess with earthquakes at our own risk.
Oklahoman lawmakers, apparently, have a different opinion about risk, though: right after the release of the USGS and FEMA’s findings, they passed a measure to curb cities and counties from banning fracking within their borders. That will make much easier for fracking companies to exercise pressure over the legislative and continue to go about their business.
‘Opinion has caused more trouble on this little earth than plagues and earthquakes,’ wrote in a letter French philosopher Voltaire in 1759. Even out of context, the quote frames his view of man’s vanity, while alluding to the great Lisbon quake four years earlier.
Shocked by the devastation visited upon the Portuguese capital, Voltaire also wrote a famous poem, registering his adamant refusal to believe in some sort of benign providence. The quote neatly uses the disaster as a metaphor to gauge the even stronger power a (wrong) opinion possesses to cause irreparable damage. Oklahomans should’ve known better. Enjoy April’s last week. WC