Saturday, November 24, 2007

Natural Crises - Low Tech Solutions

It's an uneven contest; humanity versus Nature. Nature always has the upper hand. Which, on the face of it is only fair. For it is nature that has formed us to become what we are. Gifted us with the means to make our place in this world we inhabit. We inhabit it, but nature controls it. We are given implicit permission to make our way as we may and sometimes as we will, in her territory.

Occasionally, in her powerful and neutral way she demonstrates our inadequacies. Perhaps to counter our unbridled sense of entitlement, our hubris, our never-ending search to control her caprices.

And when that happens we are indeed humbled. More, we are aghast at the slaughter of our kind through the manifestations of her power; the typhoons, hurricanes, floods, tidal waves, droughts, and earthquakes that undermine our equilibrium in this sometimes-hostile world she controls. We cope with famine, with melting heat waves, with freezing temperatures, with drought and desertification and the sinking of inhabited lowlands, with volcanic eruptions and catastrophic dust storms.

Mankind is clever and resourceful, building upon its first faltering attempts at survival technology, from the use and careful tending of fires, to the fashioning of spearheads, on to mechanical devices to sow the fertile soil, wheels to transport ourselves and agricultural produce. From the steam engine to the nuclear power plant, we have learned to manipulate our environment, to stabilize and enhance our existence, to endure nature's excesses of turmoil and disruption on this mortal coil.

We use radar, sensitive earth-reading systems to deduct tremors, and earth-revolving satellite installations to inform ourselves of impending natural cataclysms to warn ourselves and to enable us to take remedial actions through our technological prowess. We are sometimes successful in forestalling outright disaster, more often not. From our resource-rich and economy-enabling first-world countries to our poverty-stricken third-world economies we pay the price for the reality of our existence.

We are permitted to remain in our environment, but the true owner, the transcendent and generally pleasant overseer of the property states the terms of our existence. Sometimes it is a transitory and extremely unpleasant one thanks to the happenstance of geography aligned with nature; more often it is for many of us a thankful interlude between personal afflictions, a tribute to the multifarious means of existence on earth.

When all else fails, be practical and innovative. The very most basic initiatives may sometimes be the only ones available to a population which has inherited their own particular geography which has not gifted them kindly. Technology comes at a cost, and if a nation is not wealthy, then technology and all of its infrastructures is too costly to be embraced. And that is precisely when a wise administration uses what it has at its disposal.

In the case of endemically impoverished and nature-ravished Bangladesh that would be its people. Which is why it was successful in forestalling a much greater tragedy than the 3,500 destroyed human lives caused by Cyclone Sidr last week. By training and instilling a sense of personal responsibility in a veritable army of early-warning volunteers who set out on bicycles and megaphones to warn coastal-dwelling Bangladeshis, a larger catastrophe in wasted human lives was averted.

That army, of 40,000 men and women trained in disaster-alert response, sprang into action once authorities gave warning that a deadly cyclone was heading in from the Bay of Bengal. The result was that approximately 3.2 million people were able to remove themselves from the direct invasion of the cyclone and its resulting carnage. Without the action of these dedicated volunteers, it is likelier that over three hundred thousand would have perished.

How's that for practical ingenuity?

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