Myanmar: Disasters and the Politics of Disaster Relief

Myanmar: Disasters and the Politics of Disaster Relief
Photo:joiseyshowaa’s, Creative Commons, Flickr

The unfolding drama in Myanmar is a tragedy. It is also a lesson in political power, particularly the political power of food.

Politicizing food as an economic tool is practiced worldwide on a subtle scale, either from a corporate perspective (Cargill’s predominance in the wheat market, or Monsanto’s dominance of GMO seeds), or a governmental one (subsidizing crops or imposing import/export duties). It’s become blatant in Myanmar, as the ruling junta decides who will be fed (read survive) and who will die.

The cyclone that slammed into this small country, once known as Burma, has left approximately 60,000 dead and nearly a million homeless. Myanmar, geographically east of India and west of Thailand and Vietnam, took the full force of Cyclone Nargis, enduring waves as tall as 20 feet. The town of Labutta, 25 miles inland on the Irrawaddy River, was reportedly wiped off the map. It was the worst cyclone to hit Asia since 1991, when 143,000 people died in Bangladesh.

For those of us that don’t know the difference between a cyclone and a typhoon, tropical storms are called cyclones in the Indian Ocean, typhoons in Japan and the Pacific Ocean, and hurricanes in the North American Atlantic. Simply put, all are low-pressure systems which, due to the Coriolis effect, normally move north in the Northern Hemisphere, and vice versa. Their rotation is also determined by location, counterclockwise north of the Equator and clockwise south of it, just like water in a toilet bowl. Other essential features of these cyclonic storms remain the same in both hemispheres.

The Myanmar storm was a first, both in its ferocity and its targeting of the delta, according to Jeff Masters, co-founder and director of meteorology at the San Francisco-based Web site Weather Underground, which dubbed it a one-in-500-years kind of event.

"The easterly component of the path is unusual. It tracked right over the most vulnerable part of the country." Masters explained.

According to Jeff NcNeely, chief scientist for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the storm was so damaging because most of the Irrawaddy delta’s protective vegetation, primarily mangrove forests, has been cleared to grow rice. Rice is Myanmar’s largest export, and the impact of these lost crops is now being felt in worldwide rice markets, already strained by rising prices and falling supply. Last month, rice doubled in cost to the accompaniment of riots in nations where rice is a staple food.

Some scientists, like meteorology professor Kerry Emmanuel of MIT, predict increasingly violent tropical storms as global warming heats up the planet. Others claim that warmer oceans should actually reduce the violence of these storms. In November of 2006, the World Meteorological Organization met for the 6th International Workshop on Tropical Cyclones. Their findings indicate no link between global warming and tropical cyclone intensity and noted that storm devastation is primarily the result of rising coastal populations and their interference with existing ecosystems.

In its 2007 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made four points:

  • Increases in hurricane intensity since the 70s correlate with increases in sea surface temperatures
  • This increase in intensity is larger than climate models predict, though the data is insufficiently reliable
  • Other areas around the globe are also experiencing increased cyclonic intensity
  • It is more likely than not that there has been some human contribution to these increases, with a consequent 66-percent likelihood that the intensity will persist during this century

More recently, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California has been correlating records generated from earthquake monitors that also record microseisms from ocean storms. These records show that, since 1972, there has been a systematic increase in the number and intensity of these microseisms on the order of a few percentage points every year.

Another study, which tracks titanium and iron washed into the ocean from glacial valleys as a result of warming (specifically in Greenland), supports the claim for warming. Evidence takes the form of samples identified from this and two previous warming periods – about 120,000 years ago (the Eem interglacial), and again about 10,000 years ago (the Medieval Warm Period). These warm periods are interspersed with cool periods occurring about every 1,000-3,000 years, with the latest cooling about 800 years ago. This flipping can occur during periods relatively free of ice, within 200 years, and create climactic jolts that seriously affect agriculture, weather, and the earth’s habitability in northern regions.

Most recently, NASA, using almost 40 years worth of data, has confirmed the human impact on global warming.

All the science isn’t in, but it seems clear that the real danger facing mankind is both globally rising temperatures (or temperature extremes), and the alteration of ecosystems, either by pollution or human manipulation. In Myanmar, it was the removal of mangrove swamps. In New Orleans, it was a badly conceived and even more poorly constructed system of levees and navigation channels that literally funneled the now legendary hurricane Katrina right into the the city. In both cases, the danger was largely ignored because storms targeted poor populations, which are historically considered a drag on the economic engines of nations and largely replaceable.

Like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Myanmar’s early warning systems were not adequately strong enough to prepare the population. Like Katrina, Nargis changed course and velocity before hitting land, leaving unprepared citizens at the mercy of high winds and flood waters. Again, like Katrina, both storms targeted deltas where populations were most dense. Interestingly, both also represent areas where (the potential for) oil production and distribution is heaviest. Gulf of Mexico oil rig platforms were shut down for weeks in the wake of Katrina, with at least 20 sunk, missing or adrift – an economic impact that spiked gas prices and profits-per-barrel to an all-time high.

The Indian Ocean is the source of 40 percent of the world’s offshore oil production, and a major shipping lane for oil from the Middle East. If you thought oil prices couldn’t go any higher, think again. Myanmar and China are still in the developmental stages of an oil and gas pipeline to supply China with oil and gas from the Indian Ocean. This Sino-Burma Pipeline is vital to China’s industrial future, and perhaps the primary reason why China is opposed to U.S. and UN intervention in Myanmar, even in the wake of this latest tragedy.

These two superstorms, coming only a few years apart, have led conspiracy theorists to speculate that weather control systems in the hands of both the U.S. and Chinese governments are being used to target food, the poor, and oil production and distribution – always with an eye toward making food and fuel more costly while ridding countries of the people who can’t easily afford either.

I can’t refute their arguments, but I think it more likely that ecodamage (in the form of global warming, deforestation and destruction of natural systems and habitats) is the more likely cause, and will eventually lead to damaging hurricanes hitting New York, Washington, D.C. and other populous coastal centers along the Atlantic, or so impacting U.S. and Canadian grain production that a basic like bread becomes unaffordable.

As long as we persist in our addiction to fossil fuels and our predilection toward conforming the planet to our arbitrary and often impossible standards, we can all watch economic and social conditions worldwide deteriorate. The haves will seek to artificially insulate themselves from the consequences of these actions, and the have-nots – always the first to suffer the impacts of dystopian societies – will continue to perish in record numbers.

Disclosure: I don’t own stock in Cargill, a private company, or Monsanto (MON – $125.11).

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