Sunday 26 August 2012

Pakistan floods again

Pakistan suffered dreadful floods in 2010, when nearly  2,000 people were killed, and last year, when the death toll was around 250.   Now at least 22 people have been drowned in flash floods in the north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, while at least another 20 have perished across the border in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan in the heaviest rains there for more than 30 years.

Around 20,000 people have been driven from their homes, schools have closed, and transport has been disrupted.   A number of the casualties occurred when buildings collapsed, and rescue workers say they fear more bodies may be found as the waters recede.

The Pakistan floods of 2010 affected up to 20 million people, and left about a fifth of the country under water, while the total cost of the damage inflicted was up to £30 billion.

 (See also my blogs of Aug 11 and 23 and Sept 7, 2010, and Jan 27 and Sept 19, 2011.)

*On this web page, you can read the first chapter of my book Disaster! absolutely free -

Wednesday 22 August 2012

England's devastating Civil War

On this day………….370 years ago, King Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham, effectively kicking off the English Civil War of his Cavaliers against the Parliamentary Roundheads.

The war is often portrayed in England as having been a relatively gentlemanly affair, but it has been estimated that 85,000 people died as a result of military action and at least another 100,000 from disease caused by the disorder of war.

At least 150 towns were damaged, and 11,000 houses destroyed.     Villages such as Boarstall in Buckinghamshire were razed to the ground.    The Royalists sacked Bolton and Liverpool, while the Parliamentarians plundered Worcester ruthlessly.

At Beaminster in Dorset in 1644, a quarrel broke out among Royalist troops occupying the town.  A house was set on fire, and within two hours, the flames, fanned by a strong breeze, had burned down more than 140 homes, making this the most destructive fire in England in more than 30 years.

Sunday 19 August 2012

Landslides more deadly than realised

According to a study by Durham University in the UK, landslides kill up to ten times as many people as we thought.    Its authors said the worldwide death toll from 2004 to 2010 was 32,300, compared with earlier estimates of between 3,000 and 7,000.

The main author, David Petley, said most data tended to record only landslides in which ten or more people are killed, when many victims perish in much smaller events. 

The study identified the most vulnerable regions as being countries along the Himalayan Arc - India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh - plus China, and Central and South America.  It suggested that better management of forests and discouraging people from living in vulnerable areas were the best way of reducing the danger.

Perhaps the world’s deadliest landslide was the one that hit coastal areas of Venezuela after torrential rain in the last few days of the twentieth century.   Estimates of the number killed range as high as 30,000.   For the full story see A Disastrous History of the World.

Monday 13 August 2012

AIDS - the German Patient

When I first reported on AIDS in 1985, it seemed like a death sentence for those diagnosed with the disease.   Then along came antiretroviral drugs which allowed people to live with the illness provided they could afford the medicines.   Now comes real hope of a cure.

Last month’s International AIDS Conference in Washington DC reverberated with talk about a man from Berlin named Timothy Brown, who was already infected with the HIV virus (which causes AIDS) when he underwent radical treatment for the leukaemia from which he also suffered – namely, the complete destruction of his immune system.

To provide him with a new system, his doctor found a donor with a rare genetic mutation which gives immunity to HIV infection.   Then he treated Mr Brown with bone marrow cells from the donor.   After this, the HIV virus seems to have disappeared from Mr Brown’s body.

The treatment would be too expensive and too risky to try on a large scale, but it is one of a number of signs that a cure may be possible.   In the meantime, the disease still managed to kill 1.7 million people last year.

Friday 3 August 2012

Women and children last?

When the Titanic sank in 1912, there was a lot of controversy about whether some men had elbowed their way into lifeboats ahead of women and children, but a new study from Sweden suggests the evacuation of the liner was a model of chivalry compared with what happens in most shipwrecks.

About 70 percent of the women and children on board Titanic were saved, compared with just 20 percent of the men, but the researchers from Uppsala University also examined another 15 sinkings since the 1850’s involving around 15,000 passengers and crew from more than 30 different countries.

They discovered that men generally had twice as good a chance of surviving as women, and that children fared worst of all.   Crew members did better than passengers, and while Capt Edward J Smith went down with the Titanic, only 8 of the other 15 skippers met the same fate.

Nor was there any evidence overall that British crews were more selfless than those of other nations.    The most crucial consideration appeared to be whether the captain gave a clear order to give priority to women and children.    On Titanic such an order was given, and there were reports of officers shooting at any men who disobeyed.

Thursday 2 August 2012

Another historic explosion - Delft 1654

Watched an excellent programme by Andrew Graham-Dixon about the artist Jan Vermeer on BBC-4 the other night, and learned about a huge explosion that had previously escaped my attention.    In 1654, 30 tons of gunpowder were being stored in a former convent in the painter’s home town of Delft. 

On the morning of October 12, the keeper of the magazine opened the store to check a sample of powder.   For reasons we do not know, the whole thing blew up.   Fortunately, many local people were away at a market in Schiedam and a fair in The Hague.

Even so more than 100 people were killed, and thousands injured.   According to an account written 13 years later, the explosion happened with ‘such a horrible rush and force, that the arch of heaven seemed to crack and to burst, the whole earth to split, and hell to open its jaws.’

All that was left of the store was a crater fifteen feet deep, while buildings were flattened for ‘hundreds of feet’ around.     More than 200 houses were destroyed, and 300 seriously damaged.