Rampant development no match for nature

These are the times that try men’s souls. While the catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 that wreaked havoc in Indonesia and other Asian countries is still fresh in the world’s memories, the beast from the deep has struck again.

The effects of the combined earthquake and tsunami hitting Japan have brought the death toll to more than 2,100 so far, and thousands more people are still missing. Japan is struggling to provide relief efforts and save lives. China, the US and other leading nations of the world have pledged full support.

While we express our utmost condolence and pray for the best for the Japanese people, it is also time to reflect on what lessons can be learned from this tragic natural disaster.

Watching the TV footage of the debris-filled tsunami waves roaring miles inland, washing along the way cars, boats, houses and industrial equipment, is a painful experience. But it is also a sobering reminder that men are hopelessly little and insignificant in the face of the mighty power of Mother Nature.

We men have been trying to conquer nature ever since the known ages of mankind. The known systemic study of earthquakes can be traced back to AD 132. when an ancient Chinese scholar by the name of Zhang Heng invented the world’s first seismic instrument to predict earthquakes.

In Japan, which gave the English language the word tsunami, people have faced the threat of disaster for centuries. 

In modern times, Japan has devoted an enormous amount of resources to develop detection and early warning systems to contain tsunami damages. Sensors and observation devices that use supersonic waves or based on the global positioning system are used to monitor changes in sea level.

According to Japan Meteorological Agency, there have been hundreds of tsunami observation points deployed so far. When an earthquake occurs, the agency is supposedly able to check its database for correlations with the actual location and magnitude and issue warnings and advisories.

A New York Times report on Friday talked about Japan’s massive build-out of concrete seawalls in many coastal communities, some as high as 40 feet. They are the first line of defense against the water. But the waves from Friday’s tsunami still spilled over some seawalls in the affected areas.

Japan is the world’s best-prepared country for natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, and those preparations probably saved tens of thousands of lives this time. Yet all these preparation and preventive measures seem to pale in comparison to the power of Mother Nature.

While absolutely not questioning the effectiveness of these scientifically designed measures in saving lives, one may take a step back and ask why we live in areas under such risks in the first place?

It seems every time humanity’s efforts to triumph over nature step up a notch, nature comes roaring back with a vengeance.

This lesson is particularly important for housing development in China, which is in the midst of the greatest real estate boom in recent history. Every inch of precious land sees its profit maximization in the development process.

We build ever closer to river banks, seashores, hill tops, mountains and seismically active areas that are simply not supposed to be habitable in the first place. We have been lucky so far, but how long will this luck last?

The location of the Fukushima nuclear stations is another case in point. In addition to the earthquake and the tsunami, Japan is now battling a third disaster, the nuclear plant explosion, which is entirely the fault of questionable human decisions as to where to put the plant.

All of a sudden, energy officials are sweating over the prospect of their pet projects along the Pacific coast of the United States being inundated by a tsunami. The nuclear reactors at San Onofre and Diablo Canyon in California are now the targets of criticism in the US.

What about China? My understanding is that at least four nuclear stations completed or under construction are located along the coast. But are they remotely prepared for a tsunami of this scale?

The author is associate professor at the Beijing-based University of International Business and Economics.

johngong@gmail.com

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