Mother Nature struck with a vengeance during 2017. It was less a year of calamity-specific records being broken, though there was a case or two of that, as it was a year of the net effects of too many calamities in one spell to blame any specific one. Eye-raising earthquakes, floods and mudslides, forest fires, hurricanes, and temperature spirals dotted the calendar almost symmetrically across the planet, so much so that, at the end, the scramble was more to determine which location either remained unaffected by any or grappled with multiple collisions.
Climate-change advocates can argue that, since March 2017 registered more than a 1° C (1.8° F) increase since April 2016, itself the hottest year on record, all the worse-case scenarios were galvanised during 2017. On the other hand, for 225 months between November 2015 and February 1997, no global-warming instances were recorded at all, even though all of the top-10 warmest years in human history fell in this 18-year spell (from the warmest, in descending order 2016, 2015, 2014, 2010, 2013, 2005, 2009, 1998, 2012, and a tie for the tenth spot between 2002, 2006, and 2007). Not only has 2017 been climatically aberrational, but also climactic.
Forest-fires, for instance, which more directly reflect global warming than other calamities, affirm the worse-case argument. Although global forest-fire records have been hard to come by and measured unevenly, evaluating the most viewed location in the media, California, leaves us concerned. With more fatalities (36), 2017 recorded a higher number than in all the previous ten years put together, perhaps in all the 21st Century years thus far. More acres were also consumed than in any other year over the past decade or so, and by a wider margin: 1,087,639 acres burned down, as against the second highest during that time, of 893,362 in 2015, or the third highest, of 869,599 acres in 2012.
Fortunately, 2017 losses in California, of $3.3 billion, amounted to less than half of 2016's record $7.4 billion. This is small consolation for a state in which the governor, Jerry Brown, could finally lift a 6-year drought emergency in April following a record-breaking winter snowfall tally. With its aquifers drained by a $40 billion farming industry, resulting in dried wells across rural California, the state, with some of the country's most stringent water conservation measures, cannot fully relish the overabundant 2017 precipitation if it is to avoid becoming the 21st Century Dust Bowl the way Oklahoma became in the 1930s. California becomes a necessary conservationist model, technologically exploiting Mother Nature takes a wrap, and rural wrath is likely to rise as a huge back-tracking political instrument.
Hurricanes strengthen any climate-change worry, since they originate from desert heat. While California heat did not trigger any hurricanes, North Africa's Sahara was responsible for many in the eastern US seaboard and Caribbean islands. During the hurricane season (typically an Atlantic and eastern Pacific phenomenon, since, across west Pacific, they get labelled as typhoons, across the Indian Ocean as cyclones, and so forth), from June 01 to November 30, the Atlantic Ocean recorded 6 during 2017, which was the third highest in recent memory, after the 10 in 2012 and 7 in 2011. Even fatalities were not the highest: the 434 lost in 2017 compares unfavourably to the 743 in 2016. Yet, in terms of damage, perhaps reflecting hurricane severity, 2017 outclasses all other years in this century put together: between $150 and $200 billion is expected, as against the Hurricane Sandy-year, 2012, when the tally was considered astronomical: $75 billion. That severity may speak of the cumulative global-warming effects, placing 11 of this century's 18 years on the historically warmest top-10 list.
Fortunately for us in 2017, the last El Niño (which drives east Pacific ocean temperatures, then rocks global weather patterns for a year or two), between 2014 and 2016, did not directly impact this year's hurricanes, but moisture-levels still scaled past peaks. South Asia got its fill, especially in Bangladesh and the Himalayan regions. Even with one-third of Bangladesh flooded, with Red Cross/Red Crescent claiming this year's to be the worst in 40 years, thereby disrupting food production, Bangladesh somehow stood up to the occasion: 140 people died, depicting how hardened its people have become from this annual nightmare. Yet, with half-million ravaged refugees to feed on too short a notice, the country, pushed to its limits, demonstrated its resilience in another arena, finding the food and the camps to house the uprooted people more effectively than West Europeans could the Syrian refugees two years ago.
Comparatively, over 1,000 people perished from floods in India, not just in the provinces surrounding Bangladesh (Assam, Bihar, and West Bengal particularly), but also in Gujarat and Mumbai, adjoining the Deccan Plateau, where searing heat and drought, from Karnataka and Kerala to Tamil Nadu, could not be compensated by late monsoon rains: as dam water-levels remain dangerously low, bitterness over river water-sharing, especially the Cauvery, may be straining inter-province relations. With as many lives lost as in Bangladesh, Nepal also faced one of the worst flooding in recent memory, while in neighboring China, twice as many more people perished from floods as in Bangladesh. Many messages demand urgent attention.
First, the erratic demand-supply equation reflects more long-term than short-term concerns. For example, the widespread mudslide reports suggests deforestation or inadequate embankment as possible problems: plucking victims out of their plight may take up so much time and many more resources that we may just not recover sufficiently, physically or financially, to plant those desperately needed trees along river basins to absorb future monsoon rains. This is not just a South Asian concern, since Sierra Leone lost over a thousand people to mudslides this year, while Hurricane Nate and Tropical Storm Agatha also imperilled Central America and southern Mexico through mudslides. We cannot say we were not warned sufficiently during 2017.
Second, when floods and drought come hand-in-hand, human error cannot be far behind. Whether it is from inadequate or improper planning, or subordinating eco-interests to businesses, the sooner the rendezvous is made between the eco-system and human needs, the more of a cushion possible against these weather-related perils.
Third, ecological neglect and agricultural subordination silently exact a heavy toll. For instance, India's recent farmer-suicide surge of over 60,000 in this century alone has shifted the measurement reference from hundreds as the 21st Century broke to thousands today. Though 2004 set the unthinkable figure of more than 18,000, since 2011 the number has not only not fallen below 11,000, but has also kept climbing. One reason why may be the conjunction of shifting to genetically modified food by borrowing from banks, indebtedness arising from bad weather, and the worsening long-term farming conditions, with dwindling water-levels, deforestation, and so forth.
Should a stray earthquake occur or refugees storm into a vulnerable location, the dire consequences preventing a proper causal analysis actually lets the baby being washed in the bath-tub to escape with the dirty bath-water. If anything, worrying 2017 cases of Mother Nature fraying under human pressure warns us to be much more sustainable in resource handling to avoid any catastrophe: there were no catastrophic events, but our several brushes with such outcomes signals even worse could come if we remain indifferent.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.