Wednesday 30 December 2015

Floods: chronicle of a disaster foretold

Late in 2013, my book Flood: Nature and Culture was published by Reaktion Books. It noted the devastating floods seen across the world the previous year, and ended with a question:-

'Are we witnessing nothing more than the normal ups and downs of the climate? Or are those calculations by so many scientists right: does mankind now face a struggle with floods the like of which we have never seen before?'

Many people in the north of the UK in particular must have been asking something similar as the rainfall records I wrote about in the book keep being broken, leading more and more politicians to concede that what they had been categorising as 'exceptional' might, in fact, be becoming normal. The Environment Agency has admitted that a 'complete rethink' may be needed on flood defences.

In Flood, I also noted that in the United States, of the 48 Republican candidates for the Senate mid-term elections of 2010, all but one either denied the existence of global warming or opposed any action to combat it. It will be interesting to note what shift in opinion, if any, we see on the American right as the next year's presidential election looms.

Flood on Amazon:

Monday 28 December 2015

70 years on Japan and S Korea agree deal on women forced into sexual slavery during WW2

During World War Two, about 200,000 Asian women were forced to work as ‘comfort women’ – sex slaves for Japanese soldiers in military brothels. Many were Korean, and today Japan has agreed to apologise for its actions and pay compensation of £5.6 million to South Korea.

Japan has accepted ‘deep responsibility’ and the South Korean government says the deal will close the matter. Both countries have agreed to stop criticising each other publicly over the issue, and South Korea says it will look into removing a statue commemorating the women, which activists had put up outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

It is not clear whether the women will receive direct payments. The wording of the deal suggests Japan will provide ‘support’ and finance ‘projects for recovering honour and dignity and healing psychological wounds.’

Only 46 of the Korean women are still alive. They have tended to regard earlier apologies from Japan as grudging and insincere and they appear divided on this agreement, with some wanting a direct apology to them as individuals and direct compensation.

Monday 21 December 2015

Deadliest building collapse of modern times - 24 accused on the run

The Rana Plaza disaster of 2013 in Bangladesh was the deadliest building collapse of modern times, costing the lives of at least 1,138 people. More than 2,000 were injured, and some are still not accounted for.

41 people were charged with murder in connection with the collapse, but now 24 have absconded. A court has issued arrest warrants, and ordered that their property should be seized. The owner of the building, Sohel Rana, is still in custody. The trial is expected to start by April.

The building on the outskirts of Dhaka, originally constructed as a 6-storey shopping mall, had been converted into a 9-floor factory complex. It is alleged that workers drew attention to cracks in the structure before it collapsed.

Bangladesh’s clothing industry employs 4 million people, and makes garments for a number of well-known Western names. (see also my blogs of May 20 and June 12, 2013, and June 1, 2015.)

Wednesday 16 December 2015

After a disaster: return or move away?

After the Great Fire of London in 1666, there were plans to sweep away London's courts and alleys and replace them with something grander and neater, but many of them survived (and still do). A lot of Londoners wanted to rebuild the city much as it had been before the fire.

After the Tokyo earthquake of 1923, it was a similar story. Grand designs floundered because locals wanted to live in the same kind of homes in the same places as they had before. And when the Ugandan government tried to get people to settle away from an area devastated by floods in 1978, they too ran into opposition.

Now history seems to be re-repeating itself in Japan. After an earthquake and tsunami caused meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power station in 2011, some argued that the 80,000 people evacuated should be persuaded not to return, but to go and live somewhere else. 

And some have, but older people in particular seem to be keen to go back to the places they still think of as home. The town of Naraha is the first to be declared safe by the government.

Friday 11 December 2015

War crimes: Of Bangladesh and long shadows

Facebook has been restored in Bangladesh, after a three-week shutdown following the hanging of Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid for war crimes during the country’s bloody struggle for independence from Pakistan 44 years ago.

A special war crimes tribunal had found Chowdhury guilty of 9 charges including genocide, arson and persecuting people on religious and political grounds. While Mujahid was convicted of 5, including abduction and murder.

Both were prominent opposition politicians. A senior figure in the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Chowdhury had been elected an MP 6 times. Mujahid, an Islamist, was social welfare minister from 2001 to 2006. Both men maintained their innocence.

The tribunal was set up in 2010 by the current government, following an election pledge to bring murderers to justice, but human rights groups argue the men were not given a fair trial.

Monday 7 December 2015

Naming of storms

At least two people have now been killed by Storm Desmond. A 90 year old man was blown into the side of a moving bus in London, and another elderly man was swept into a river in Cumbria. Before Desmond, we were buffeted by Abigail, Barney and Clodagh

Until the last few months, only the very biggest storms got names in the UK - and those were unofficial ones, like the Great Storms of  1703 and 1987, the Burns' Day Storm of 1990, and the St Jude's Storm of 2013. Now, though, the Met Office has adopted the practice that forecasters in other countries have followed with major storms, and started giving them consecutive alphabetical names.

In the old days  in the West Indies, storms would be named after the saint's day on which they appeared. Then in the 19th century, an Australian meteorologist started calling them after politicians he disliked. Next the authorities tried numbers, but this proved too confusing when there was more than one blowing.

During World War Two, clarity was essential, so US meteorologists went back to names - often those of a wife or girlfriend. Then in 1953, the US National Weather Service drew up an official slate of female names, which continued until the late 1970s when feminist groups protested, and the authorities agreed to alternate male and female names.