Thursday, 26 August 2010

Rain and cholera

More trouble being caused by heavy rains. Now they’re being blamed for a cholera outbreak that has hit a third of Nigeria’s 36 provinces. Doctors say the whole country is now threatened. So far, there have been more than 6,000 cases and more than 350 people have died.

The outbreak has also killed 200 people in neighbouring Cameroon, and in Pakistan doctors are also seeing cases in the wake of the monsoon floods. In the 19th Century, cholera was driven out of most of the industrialised world by improved hygiene, living conditions and public health measures.

The disease may have struck India as early as the 4th century BC, but the first pandemic is reckoned to have begun in 1817 at Jessore and then spread through the rest of India before attacking much of Asia as well as Russia and East Africa.

The UK was struck for the first time during the second pandemic, which started in Russia. It reached every corner of Britain and killed an estimated 60,000 people. Hungary and Russia lost perhaps 200,000 each. It managed to cross the Atlantic, causing many deaths in Canada, the USA, Mexico and Cuba. (See also my blogs of Jan 31 and July 20.)

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Mining disaster survivors

After the scenes of wild celebration in Chile when it was revealed that 33 men trapped on August 5th by a tunnel collapse at the San Jose copper and gold mine are still alive, comes the sober realisation that it may take four more months to free them.

They do have access to some water, but they have been living on two spoonfuls of tuna, a sip of milk and a biscuit every 48 hours. They are in a shelter, said to be about the size of a one-bedroom flat, though some argue they have about a mile of space to move around in.

There have been other extraordinary escapes after mining accidents. Europe’s worst was at Courrieres in northern France in 1906, when nearly 1,100 were killed. Twenty days after the explosion, to general astonishment, 13 survivors emerged from the pit. They had lost all sense of time, and believed they had been trapped for only four or five days.

After China’s Tangshan earthquake of 1976, some coalminers survived for 15 days below ground without food or clean water. They too believed they had been trapped for only a few days, but their bodies told the true story. They had each lost up to three stones. For more details, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Pakistan floods - an ungenerous response?

Three weeks after the monsoon floods were unleashed on Pakistan, Louis-Georges Arsenault, director of emergency services for UN agency UNICEF, has blasted the international response as “extraordinarily” inadequate.

M Arsenault says this is the biggest humanitarian crisis “in decades.” The UN had called for around £300m in emergency aid, and says it has raised nearly 70% of this, but the Pakistan government says the cost of rebuilding could be as high as £10bn, and up to 17m people have been hit by the floods.

So if the response has been rather lukewarm, what are the reasons? One offered is that the death toll has been relatively small - “only” about 1,600 compared with around ¼ million in the Haiti earthquake and the Boxing Day tsunami, and that the flood has been a more slowly developing and less dramatic disaster

Then there are said to be worries about corruption, a feeling that oil-rich Muslim countries have failed to do enough, the perception that Pakistan has been an exporter of terrorism, and the global financial crisis. Against that, the people of the UK have stumped up £30m out of their own pockets, and India, which has often believed itself a victim of Pakistani-inspired terrorism, has provided around £3m.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Financial disasters 3 - the banking crisis

Earlier this month, the BBC’s business correspondent, Robert Peston, revealed that the new Basel rules designed to prevent a repeat of the banking crisis have been watered down into ineffectiveness.

That’s a shame. In London’s Disasters, I tell the story of the crisis, and of how the bail-out of Britain’s banks had cost £850 billion by December 2009. That’s about £14,000 for every man, woman and child in the country.

I mentioned in my blog of Aug 13th that those responsible for the South Sea Bubble in the 18th century had their estates confiscated. (They got off lightly. One MP wanted them to be tied up in sacks and thrown into the Thames.)

No such problems for those responsible for the banking crisis. We all know the story of Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension, and of how in February 2010, RBS announced that even though it had lost £3.6 billion in 2009, it wanted to pay out £1.3 billion in bonuses. (See also my blog of Jan 20, Feb 10 13, 16, 18, 2009.)

*More coverage of the book from the Wandsworth Guardian:-

and Docklands 24

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Goodbye Iraq - Part 94

Today the last US combat brigade left Iraq. Now the only Americans left are a few “advisers” – all right, 50,000 of them if you want to be pedantic. What a disaster they and the British Labour government that so foolishly helped them are leaving behind.

Earlier this week, a suicide bomb outside an Iraqi army recruiting centre in Baghdad killed at least 59 people. July was the most violent month for two years, though the Americans contest the figure of more than 530 killed. This denial represents progress of a kind. For a long time the American and British authorities were profoundly uninterested in how many Iraqi civilians were killed. This means we have had to rely on unofficial estimates, like the one from Iraq Body Count which reckons the figure is around 100,000.

Five months after the Iraqi elections, there is still no government. An ethnically and religiously divided country has patently dissolved into enemy factions, with the promise of more death and destruction.

Labour constantly told us that invading Iraq would make Britain more secure. Well, before we launched our attack, al-Qaeda were a nonentity there – you see they were Saddam Hussein’s enemy too. Now they are a power, and, many fear, a growing one. And still none of the conspirators who conjured up this disastrous war has said “sorry”. (Use the search button to find many earlier Iraq blogs.)

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The War on Drugs continued

A staggering 28,000 people have been killed in the last four years in Mexico's "war on drugs." In one of the most bizarre episodes, last month a group of prisoners in Durango was apparently released from gaol for a night so they could murder 18 guests at a party.

Now President Calderon has called for a debate on whether drugs should be legalised. Meanwhile, in California, people will vote in a referendum in November on whether to legalise and tax marijuana.

In the UK, Sir Ian Gilmore, former president of the Royal College of Physicians, has also called for drugs to be decriminalised, on the grounds that it would improve health and reduce crime. Depressingly, the government reflected for about three seconds, before dismissing the idea on the grounds that "we want to reduce drug use, crack down on drug-related crime and disorder and help addicts come off drugs for good."

It would be lovely if nobody took drugs, just as it would be lovely if nobody smoked, but millions of people do, and intelligent policy making has to start from that point. There is absolutely no evidence that the government's present policy is achieving its objectives and it is certainly generating a huge violent criminal industry. It's claimed that use of drugs in Portugal has actually fallen since they were decriminalised in 2001.

(See also my blogs of June 10 and 12.)

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Russian droughts and Pakistani floods - the connection

I have already blogged about the Pakistan monsoon floods (Aug 11) which have killed at least 2,000 and driven perhaps 20 million from their homes, and Russia’s worst known heatwave (July 15) which has killed more than 50 people in wildfires, and has doubled the death rate in Moscow through soaring temperatures and acid smog.

So what is the connection? Air movements called Rossby waves are supposed to move through the upper atmosphere, but sometimes they get stuck. That has apparently happened this year, and when they do they trap the weather beneath them.

This has brought persistent high pressure over Russia, and troughs over Pakistan . Once you get this gridlock, the weather tends to be self-reinforcing. So as Russia warms up, the ground gets hotter and drier. Grass, brush and forest starts to catch fire, and the soot that’s produced heats the air even more.

Disturbingly, some scientists say that they are exactly the kind of trends you would expect to see with global warming, and that they will get worse. There’s more detail in an interesting article in the British magazine The Economist.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Financial disasters 2 - stock market crashes

The worst two Stock Market crashes in the UK both happened within the last 40 years. From 1972 to 1974, the market lost 70% of its value. Investor confidence was undermined by a spate of bad news, particularly the oil embargo and four-fold price increase that followed Israel’s Yom Kippur War with Egypt.

The market did not recover the ground it had lost in real terms until May 1987. Then five months later, it crashed again. On Friday, 16 October, 1987 hardly anyone was at work in London’s City financial district because of the disruption caused by the Great Storm, the worst in Britain for more than 280 years.

While they were away, prices in New York had been falling steeply. The reasons are not altogether clear - a drop in the price of the dollar, poor trade figures, just that headless chicken panic that seems to grip markets every so often? Anyway, by the time London opened on Monday, 19 October, there was huge pent-up demand to sell. £50 billion was wiped off share prices, and the date went down in history as ‘Black Monday’.

The next day’s collapse was even more precipitous, and by November 9, the index had fallen 34%. The main blame was put on ‘programme trading’ which meant that computers automatically sold shares when they dropped to a certain level, though others thought Mrs Thatcher’s ‘Big Bang’ deregulation had also played its part.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Financial disasters - The South Sea Bubble

In my books, I have usually restricted myself to writing about disasters in which human beings are killed or injured, but for London’s Disasters I have broken new ground by devoting a section to financial disasters.

It begins with the story of the South Sea bubble, which is quite a story. In 1720, a British company whose core activity was transporting slaves from Africa to Spain’s South American colonies, was chosen by the government to get down the National Debt by inducing people to swap the government debt they held for shares in the company.

A judicious campaign of bribery and misinformation drove the share price up to dizzying heights, and some made fortunes. Then when, as it tends to, reality set in, the stock fell just as dramatically and other people were ruined.

Perhaps most striking to us today is the way the government did try to hold those responsible to account – confiscating their wealth, and using it to compensate the losers. It’s still a gripping and fascinating tale, full of colourful characters like the secretary of the Sword Blade Company, Sir John Blunt (really) and King George I's two anatomically contrasting mistresses – the” hop-pole” and the “Elephant and Castle”.

*The love Clapham website has an item on London's Disasters:-

Thursday, 12 August 2010

China's landslide

Heavy rain is continuing to disrupt rescue efforts after Sunday’s landslide in north-west China. Mudslides have blocked a road and river used for bringing in supplies, while emergency shelters have been flooded, and more downpours are forecast.

At least 1,117 people have been killed, and another 600 are still missing. Zhouqu county, where the disaster has happened, has suffered ten major landslides over the last two centuries, but there are complaints that the authorities’ cavalier attitude to the environment in recent times has made things worse.

More than 120,000 hectares of forest were felled between 1952 and 1990, and mining and the building of dams in the steep valleys is said to have made things worse. A report in 2006 by the University of Lanzhou – the provincial capital - had drawn attention to the dangers.

The deadliest landslide in history was probably the one that devastated Venezuela’s coastal region in December 1999. Thirty-six inches of rain fell in just a few days, and flash floods and mudslides are reckoned to have killed up to 30,000 people. (See also my blogs of 17 April, 12 and 19 November, 2009.)

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Monsoon floods

The death toll in the Pakistan monsoon floods is now put at about 1,600. With perhaps 14 million people driven from their homes, and crops and animals being wiped out, it is rightly being seen as a major catastrophe.

However, this is not yet the deadliest monsoon flood in history. There have been at least ten over the last 40 years that have claimed more lives. The worst hit countries have been India and Bangladesh.

A monsoon flood in Bangladesh in 1974 is said to have killed nearly 29,000, though some of these may have perished in the famine that followed. It happened just two years after the country had won independence and less than four years after the deadliest cyclone in history had killed perhaps half a million of its people.

*The Croydon Guardian has written a piece on London’s Disasters.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

London's Disasters - my new book

Sorry about the lack of blogs over the past few days. I’ve been working on publicising my new book – London’s Disasters: from Boudicca to the banking crisis, published by the History Press. It is an update and expansion of my Disastrous History of London which was first published seven years ago as Capital Disasters.

I was interviewed this morning on Time 107.5, the local radio station for Havering, Barking, Dagenham and Redbridge about the sinking of the Princess Alice on September 3, 1878 on the Thames close to the Barking Creek sewage treatment works.

About 640 people drowned after the pleasure steamer collided with a collier on a lovely evening. It is perhaps not surprising that this was the worst shipwreck in London’s history. When you think of the fierce storms that strike our coasts, and the treacherous rocks around them, it is more surprising when you realise this was one of the worst shipwrecks in British history.

One of the consequences of the disaster was a tightening up of the rules of navigation on the Thames. Confusion over how vessels should pass each other was one of the factors that caused the accident. For the full, dramatic story, see London’s Disasters.