Are Recent Flood Disasters the Result of Climate Change?

With huge numbers of his citizens affected by flooding, Bolivian President Evo Morales bitterly complained that the industrial countries’ insatiable appetite for fossil-fueled growth, and their lack of climate action, are to blame for the disaster. The floods have been described as the worst in more than 20 years. They have driven tens of thousands of Bolivians from their homes and altogether have affected more than 350,000 people, many of them members of the country’s poor indigenous population. Eight of Bolivia’s nine departments have been hit with flooding, landslides, drought, hail and freezing weather.

It remains difficult, if not impossible, to pin particular disasters such as floods and storms to the phenomenon of climate change. For all the advances of scientists, such precise causality cannot be established. Climate change or not, “natural” disasters are of course a frequent occurrence. But it is clear that a destabilized climate system, together with other forms of environmental damage, will cause havoc more frequently. Thus, over time, it is becoming more and more likely that a particular disaster was indeed either caused or worsened by climate change—and thus can be traced back to the massive consumption of oil, gas, and coal. Beyond Bolivia, recent weeks have seen a range of devastating floods in Asia and Africa:

  • Flooding paralyzed Indonesia’s capital Jakarta and surrounding areas, forcing more than 300,000 people out of their homes.
  • Some 85,000 people were forced to flee their homes due to heavy rains and flooding in Mozambique. Early estimates indicated that 15,000 hectares of crops have been lost. It is thought that some 285,000 Mozambicans may need food aid for several months. Tropical cyclone Favio exacerbated flooding of the Zambezi river valley, displacing another 120,000 people.
  • Like Mozambique, several other countries in southern Africa—including Angola, Madagascar, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe—are confronting heavy rains and floods that have come following drought conditions in recent years.
  • Two million people, more than a quarter of the population, were hit by floods in Burundi. The country is still struggling to overcome the effects of 13 years of civil war that killed more than 300,000 people and displaced more than 1 million others. A UN assessment found that heavy rains and floods had destroyed 50-80 per cent of the November harvest and much of January’s crop of staple foods. Families in the affected areas have no food reserves. First, crops planted in August 2006 were lost to a harsh dry spell, and in late September floods swept away crops and submerged fields.

A sad common theme for these disasters is that they rarely make global headlines and that the UN and other aid agencies dealing with the aftermath tend to fall substantially short of the resources needed. In a warming world, not only will these kinds of events become more frequent, but it would appear that conflicts—over emergency aid allocation as well as energy policy—will grow more intense.