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2010: The year nature struck back!

What a year it was! Natural disasters were in full swing around the globe, making 2010 a catastrophic year for the human race. It began with a deadly earthquake that struck Haiti early in January and ended with severe snowstorms from Moscow to New York.

According to Swiss Re, of the world's leading re-insurers, disasters claimed about 260,000 lives this year, the highest number for 34 years. They caused global economic losses above US$222 billion, more than double Viet Nam's economy and well exceeding the $63 billion lost in 2009.

While the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti was the biggest killer, taking about 220,000 lives and burying most of the country's capital, Port-au-Prince, strong quakes also struck Chile, China and Indonesia, causing panic and loss of life.

To make matters worse, intense flooding killed about 6,300 people in 59 countries up until September, according to the World Heath Organisation. The most severe, in Pakistan, lasted for months and covered about a fifth of the nation's land area under water. About 2,000 people were killed and 12 million others lost houses, property and livestock.

Viet Nam was also inundated. In October and November, the central region, from Nghe An to Khanh Hoa province, was ravaged by five separate floods. They were the worst for many years.

Almost 200 people were killed, 197 injured and another 35 were reported missing. Economic losses were estimated at VND13.5 trillion ($694 million) as crops were devastated and irrigation systems destroyed.

In April, massive eruptions from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano took no lives, but filled northern European skies with grey ash for weeks.

Air traffic was disrupted for weeks and the flights of about 7 million people affected. In November, the violent eruption of Indonesia's Mount Merapi killed 353 people and forced more than 350,000 people to flee their homes.

Then there was the record heat wave in Russia in July which led to devastating wildfires in August. An extremely cold start to winter brought blizzards across the US and Europe.

Natural calamities – despite unceasing efforts of scientists and governments – cannot be prevented, but their devastation can be rectified. The effects of these Acts of God, as some insurers refer to them, can be lessened by human ingenuity. Take the recent earthquakes for example.

Poor housing and infrastructure, densely crowded and vulnerable urban areas and government inefficiency exacerbated the impact of the earthquake in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Besides the huge loss of life, which made the quake of the 10 deadliest in recorded history, the country's lack of emergency services and money and skills to reconst made matters worse.

More than 1 million Haitians are still living in tents without proper sanitation. It comes as no surprise that the country has been immersed in crisis since the earthquake, with a deadly cholera outbreak adding to the country's misery.

Just weeks after the Haiti earthquake, a much stronger – 8.8 magnitude in scale – hit a large part of Chile. Fortunately, better building standards and lower concentrations of people kept the death to about 700. In New Zealand in September, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck the South Island, including the second largest city of Christchurch, but there were no casualties. This was largely due to the country's advanced emergency services and strict city planning and building codes.

Deadly error

But 2010 showed that human error can also be deadly. Nineteen passengers, mostly women and children, were killed in Viet Nam's central province of Ha Tinh in the October flood when a bus driver tried to rush through swift-flowing water despite a ban by local authorities. The story drew the attention of the nation.

On a bigger scale, many world governments can also be called irresponsible for failing to preserve and heal the environment. People are slowly becoming aware that this slack attitude is placing the survival of humanity, and the planet, at risk.

It seems that we are now paying the price – and will surely keep paying until a natural balance is restored. Most scientists now agree that climate change is bringing more extreme weather, including heat waves, heavy floods and blizzards.

According to the World Meteorological Organisation, the year 2010 goes down as of the three hottest years on record. A total of 18 countries reported the hottest days in their recorded history. The deadly Russian heat wave in July set a national record of 44oC, and claimed 15,000 lives, directly or indirectly.

Scientists also attribute the fierce snowstorms that hit the US, Europe, and East Asia to global warming. Judah Cohen, director of a US-based atmospheric and environmental research firm, said in the New York Times that higher global temperatures was melting Arctic ice at an unprecedented rate, making more moisture become available to fall as snow. The larger snow cover in Siberia creates a large dome of cold air which then spreads southward to East Asia and south-west into Europe and the US.

Fortunately, human efforts to tackle the source of the warming problem made some progress this year.

The latest United Nations Conference on Climate Change held in Cancun, Mexico, early this month, produced agreement that money to be set aside to help poor and developing countries fight climate change and halt deforestation, of the main producers of carbon dioxide. The summit was applauded for restoring faith in the warming reduction process following the collapse of the Copenhagen summit last year.

However, like Copenhagen, the Cancun summit tackled the effects of the problem, but not its cause.

It failed to produce a binding deal on the most crucial issue: a mechanism for nations to cut industrial carbon dioxide emissions, the main cause of global warming. This will give some big emitters more time to pollute, worsening the situation.

Beyond economics

Earlier this month, both Japan and South Korea announced they would delay the launch of a national emissions trading scheme that would curb company emissions, bowing to opposition from powerful business groups. This followed a similar setback in Australia earlier this year.

It seems that devastating calamities are not enough to persuade the rich nations that they must look beyond economic development in their plans for the future if the human race is to survive.

(By Vu Thu Ha)

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