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What natural disasters cost the global economy in 2020

By Tim McDonnell Climate reporter. of Quartz. December 29, 2020

Obsessing about climate change

Covid-19 is clearly the crisis that defined 2020.

Yet, millions of people were forced to grapple with natural disasters alongside the pandemic. A massive deluge of record-breaking catastrophic events:

Atlantic hurricanes, devastating wildfires, floods, and even locust storms added up to one of the world’s most damaging and expensive years of natural disasters in the last half-century.

According to a Dec. 15 analysis by the reinsurance giant Swiss Re, global economic losses from natural disasters amounted to $175 billion this year.

Of that, $76 billion were insured, the fifth-highest total since 1970.

With some notable spikes in 2005 (Hurricane Katrina) and 2017 (Harvey, Irma, and Maria), average annual insured losses have risen steadily in the last few decades, up from $7.4 billion, adjusted for inflation, in 1979.

That’s the result of 3 main factors:

Rising property values in developing countries, increasing insurance coverage in developed countries, and climate change driving more frequent and severe storms and wildfires across the board.

This year, the most expensive series of events was the Atlantic hurricane season, according to a Dec. 28 report from the UK-based nonprofit Christian Aid, with a record 30 named storms, 12 of which made landfall in the US.

The figures below capture insured losses only; the full scale of damage is much higher.

The US is also expected to break another record, for the number of disasters causing damages of $1 billion or more.

Since 1980, the average has been around seven disasters.

This year, it could be 20, due to hurricanes, West Coast wildfires, and storms and flooding in the Midwest.

Still, while the geophysical impacts of climate change are widely distributed among rich and poor countries, the economic toll is felt most acutely in the poorer States, where disaster insurance is still a rarity.

According to Munich Re, almost three-quarters of the $5.2 trillion in global natural disaster damages since 1980 were uninsured.

And although some governments in the Caribbean and Africa have started to partner with insurance providers in offering disaster insurance to their citizens, the vast majority of damages there remain uninsured.

We have this insurance gap,” Ernst Rauch, Munich Re’s chief climate scientist, said in an interview.

“In low-income countries the gap was 95%-plus in the 1980s, and today it’s exactly the same. Nothing has changed, and this is very frustrating.” (Frustrating? Why, are there enough money saved with these poor citizens to mind paying overcharged insurance fees?)



Why has God spared Lebanon from recurrent natural disasters?

God probably guessed our Socio Political life will be disastrous by itself and wont need any support from mother nature…

But this hasn’t been true throughout history. Our ancestors suffered from numerous huge earth quakes such as the one in July 551 killing more than 30,000 people and causing a huge tsunami which swiped the Lebanese shores.

earthquake lines in lebanon

The Lebanese have zero knowledge when it comes to disaster preparedness, except for packing our Ray Bans, High Heels and enough Sushi reserve.

So we turned to Ramzi Saliba, expert on Earthquake Preparedness for a major eye opener! Below was his response:

Because 10 is too mainstream, here are the top 9 things NOT to do during or after an earthquake:

1- First, do NOT take a selfie: 


When an earthquake jolts the ground below your feet and sends your adrenaline levels shooting up your spine, you have merely seconds to either take cover or run for your life.

With our obsession to document every teeny tiny non-event of our existence and share it on social media #duckface, posing for a selfie while cracks appear on the wall you chose as background behind you might not be the smartest of ideas #myhouseiscrumbling #cool #imdead

2- Do NOT take cover on balconies: 


While the sight of buildings swaying back and forth might make for a nice YouTube video that is likely to attract a decent number of viewers and increase your odds at limited and short-lived internet fame, the rush of adrenaline you are experiencing actually stems from the fact that the porch serving as your sanctuary and observatory has tumbled, and your figure is about to meet the asphalt introducing you to Lady Gravity and enabling you to finally grasp the difference between mass and weight. FYI, it’s P=mg.

3- Do NOT pack your bags: 


This should not come as a shocker, but you’re late. Like really late.

As late as the turtle was before that idiot of a rabbit went all hippies and lost the race. Unless you have a survival kit ready and waiting to be grabbed and save your life, you better run Forrest.

Whatever important items you want to salvage, you should have thought about it earlier. Now is not the time to fetch your costume to recreate your own version of the Harlem Shake.

4- Do NOT use matches or a lighter: 


If, after the earthquake, the electricity is crippled which is more than a safe bet and you’re swimming in a pool of dark and dust, don’t light up any matches, not even a spark, as those CGI flames you saw on Pompeii (or maybe you didn’t see, it wasn’t a good movie anyways) might turn into a scorching reality, pun intended.

The sound of a hiss might give you a clue that gas is leaking and it is high time you abandon ship. (At least Lebanon has no public gas pipes serving the homes)

5- Do NOT use elevators: 


Because if you do, it could end up like number 2, only you’ll be  learning physics while stuck in a cage with no view. Use the stairs to evacuate, the exercise will work in synergy with the effects of the shock you’re experiencing and help you shed those few extra pounds you’ve been meaning to lose before swimsuit season, or holidays’ season, or your wedding.

6- Do NOT return indoors unless it’s safe: 


Remember that ship you just abandoned? Don’t jump back on it because you want to salvage your PS4, Wii, or X-Box One.

Aftershocks can occur after the initial jolt and cause further destruction to damaged buildings. Wait until you’re cleared to do so. However, there is hope as not every tremor is bound to bring the house down, and I don’t mean it the way David Guetta brings the house down on Beirut waterfront every summer so much he should be given the citizenship already.

7- Do NOT run towards the water: 


If you haven’t heard of tsunamis after Indonesia and Japan, you must have been reading A Song of Ice and Fire and watching Game of Thrones for years on end without so much as the benefit of a toilet break.

While not every earthquake generates a tsunami, seek shelter on higher ground and should any waves reach the shore, wait at least 2 hours after the last wave has hit, if any, before going back. No, you cannot swim in a tsunami, please refer to number 8.

8- Do NOT dust off your surfing board: 


If you think tsunami waves are an “awesome”  bad-ass version of those creating every surfer’s dream on Hawaii’s Oahu Beach, I got news for you: You know nothing Jon Snow.

Tsunamis are more like a wall of water that pushes forward and forward picking up and obliterating whatever’s laying in its path. The only thing you can surf is some footage over the web, preferably now while you still can.

9- Last but not least, do NOT remain bare-foot:


We don’t want all the rubble and glass aiming to maim whatever lower limbs they can find to be at the receiving end of every bit of profanity the panicked hordes of residents have to offer.

So just in case you were cursing those long hours your significant other dragged you to the mall where she went on a shopping frenzy, those shoes she bought you might make the difference between septicemia and just a very bad day. Ladies, good on you, but try to keep the hiking shoes nearby instead of those posh high heels.

Kindly note this list is NOT exhaustive, other honorable mentions include NOT tampering with electricity, NOT sheltering near windows, the clichéd but life-saving NOT panicking, and NOT getting complacent thinking that Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham will roll in with their team of Expendables for the rescue. NOT gonna happen.


Beirut is Ridiculously Unprepared for a Major Earthquake

Under the Roman empire, Berytus, the capital of modern-day Lebanon, was known as the Jewel of Phoenicia and motherbed of Law.

The harbor city was a trading hub for luxury gems and spices. Wealthy Romans built holiday villas there, along with towering monuments and dazzling theaters. Its law school gained the city a reputation as “The wet nurse of law“, and a famed center of higher education.n

In 551 AD, the earth broke. A massive earthquake tumbled buildings and sparked a tsunami that wiped the city off the map and killed an estimated 30,000 people.

As Beirut was rebuilding, another earthquake wiped it out again within a decade. It took decades for Beirut to recover its position as a regional capital following the disaster, and even then, it never entirely regained its former glory.

In modern day Lebanon, Beirut’s notoriety stems from its bloody 15-year civil war and its precarious position along a political fault line between regional powers jostling for influence in the tumultuous Middle East.

But it may be the literal fault lines running underneath the country that ultimately present the biggest risk to the tiny Mediterranean country.

Look at a Google satellite map of Lebanon, and you’ll see that the most prominent feature observable from space is a line, at first appearing to be a highway, stretching straight through the center of the country, down from Turkey through the Syrian border in the north, to Palestine in the south.

The line is a fold in the topography that was created by the Yammouneh fault line, one of 3 major cracks in the earth’s surface under Lebanon that put it at high risk for another quake.

The Serghaya fault line, runs to the east, under the Bekka Valley.

A third major fault system, the Mount Lebanon Thrust, running just off the coast of Lebanon, was only discovered in 2003 when geologists surveyed the area after decades of war suspended research for 25 years.

“We live in a very special place on the surface of the planet,” says Ata Elias, assistant professor of geology at the American University of Beirut. “Lebanon is just there between these plates. Earthquakes do happen here and we have had major earthquakes.”

Elias says the country is overdue for another major quake.

In 1759, two quakes, one month apart and each measuring 7 on the Richter scale, killed some 40,000 people in Lebanon and Syria.

Lebanon witnessed an earthquake in 1956, and the citizens had to suffer “The earthquake tax” for two decades.

The Yammouneh fault line produces an earthquake about once every 8 to 10 centuries, and the Mount Lebanon Thrust every 15 to 17 centuries. Both have the potential to generate earthquakes of up to 7.5 in magnitude.

“We are at a time when both fault lines have had enough time to produce another earthquake. But how soon, no one can really say,” says Elias.

What he can say, however, is that the current level of preparedness for such an event means it will result in catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.

More than 70% or Lebanon’s roughly four million people live along the coast. Beirut has a population of approximately 1.5 million, with most cramped into dense, poorly constructed residential housing.

Those residential buildings, built into picturesque hills — pushed up by pressure from the earth’s movement over centuries — or on soft, sandy coastal soil are not built to withstand a quake of such magnitude.

A law passed in 1994 says all new construction must be built according to standards incorporating seismic resistance. But most residential buildings are old, built before these laws were introduced. And with little government oversight, construction laws are rarely enforced.

“Lebanon is not prepared for this at all,” says Mohammed Harajli, a professor of civil engineering at AUB. “There is a requirement that every building over four-and-a-half stories should be resistant, but the problem is in supervision. There are no strict laws for monitoring and implementation. The country is too busy with the political situation to take this seriously.”

To help mitigate the risk, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is working with the prime minister’s office on a project to help the Lebanese government develop its disaster management and risk reduction strategy.

Signed in 2009, the Disaster Risk Management Project has developed a National Response Plan to deal specifically with natural or man-made disasters, including earthquakes, which feature high on the list.

Project manager for the project Nathalie Zahrour says that, while progress has been made, there is still a long way to go and the NRP has yet to be endorsed by the Cabinet.

“Risk reduction is everybody’s responsibility and the government has a major role at the institutional, sectoral and local level to play. The Lebanese Government has committed to giving DRM high priority,” says Zahrour.

“Making Lebanon resilient to disasters is a long process; laws need to be issued and approved, the National Disaster Management Agency needs to be developed, funding needs to be channelled. Nevertheless, we are determined to become a flagship of resilience.”

Crucial to saving lives, according to Harajli, is public and industry awareness.

“If we design our structures for earthquakes and observe international regulations, we save a lot of lives,” he says. “The cost of making a building earthquake resistant does not add that much to the cost of the building. It’s 5% maximum.

Elias agrees, and says waiting for the next big one to hit is not an option. “We need something to shake people into being prepared for this. If we get a major quake, the face of the country will be changed dramatically. Otherwise we will be another Haiti.”

Is Real Change handicapped by Professional Activism?

It’s disconcerting to find so few faces in the prominent ranks of the environmental movement that reflect the realities and experiences of those bearing the brunt of climate collapse.

Estimates show that since 1990 more than 90% of natural disasters have occurred in poor countries and that, globally, communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by air, soil and water pollution.

Numbers also demonstrate that low-income households are hit the hardest by disasters, due to factors such as poor infrastructure and economic instability.

Yet those making strategic decisions are sitting in air-conditioned board rooms, hoping their conversations will pave the way for profound systemic change. Those most impacted by socioeconomic ills and environmental degradation are rarely present at those tables.

This disconnect is quite alarming. Those of us frustrated with this scenario have turned to a deeper analysis and framework over the last decade—that of climate justice. Defining “climage” justice is a work in progress; honoring and integrating it are lifelong struggles.

Henia Belalia posted on AlerNet this Oct. 29, 2013:

Is Professional Activism Getting in the Way of Real Change?   

“With budgets and voices so loud, professionals’ messages overshadow the call for uprisings coming from the trenches.


To tackle the root (read: radical) causes of the climate crisis, we must first acknowledge that environmental degradation exacerbates existing economic, racial and social injustices—an interconnectedness that should define our analysis and actions.

To truly win, land and justice defenders must recognize overlapping systems of oppression within this capitalist structure, and take strategic cues from the communities most impacted by colonization, militarism and poverty. That means building movements across issues and beyond divides based on race, class and gender, while elevating the voices that have been historically marginalized: indigenous peoples, communities of color, women, LGBTQ people, and the low-income population.

To do so will take a profound decolonization of minds and professional institutions.

For many in this country, resistance isn’t a choice—it’s not fashionable—it’s plain survival.

Walking through the streets of northern Philadelphia, my heart sinks. The rundown streets of a forgotten city, its gifts and peoples deemed disposable by the state’s corporate and governmental elites. Empty lots, dozens of schools shut down, despairingly long waiting-lists for access to public education, while across the invisible divide, bright lights shine and champagne glasses clink, unperturbed.

In the Far Rockaways of New York City, I come across wounds still bleeding, left open to the winds. Memories of Hurricane Sandy lie in the debris lining the sidewalks, the closed-down businesses and uneven pavements, the local hospital on the brink of closure.

The mass incarcerations of our brothers, fathers, lovers of color, stuck in vicious cycles of debt, drugs and street violence, the straight shot from a poor home to a gray prison cell. The overflowing detention centers, filled with terrified youth ripped from their families, many of them waiting to be deported to countries they haven’t set foot in since early childhood.

Indigenous nations, whose land we’re standing on, surviving 500 years of cultural and ethnic genocide, in the form of boarding schools, involuntary sterilization of their women, and broken treaties.

These are the unsung faces of the resistance. The lived experiences of the warriors and very survival should not only drive the direction of our movements, but will inevitably determine the success of our struggle for collective liberation.

Instead, within the existing mainstream culture, while organizing has shifted to career-based models, anti-oppression work has become fashionable, and even worse, fundable.

Through training, some may have learned the politically correct language to use, but much of the “anti-oppression” process has remained superficial, void of a real consideration for intersections of race, class and gender. This has resulted in a few token organizers of color hired into the ranks of respectable positions in big non-governmental organizations, with an unspoken expectation that they will be speaking for other brothers and sisters of color.

Meanwhile, for those coming from low-income households or without a college education, the doors of opportunity within the environmental and climate movement are almost always out of reach.

For a person once seduced by an organizing career and its false promises of liberation, it was a rude awakening. As a brown migrant woman, often tokenized as the “good kind of Arab,” if I wanted a meaningful voice in this movement, I was going to have to take up space for myself, much like many had done before me. That also meant taking responsibility for my own layers of privilege, like my college education and access to resources, that most in my family aren’t privy to.

The professionalization of change-making has created a non-profit industrial complex (NPIC) which hinders rather than promotes liberation movements. At Power Shift 2011, a national climate conference bringing together thousands of youth, there was a literal physical divide between the workshop spaces for the college students (mostly white middle-class) and the front-line communities (low-income, mostly youth of color). Since they were assigned different training tracks and curriculum, one of the only overlaps was during keynote speeches.

This year, at the same conference, several delegations of marginalized youth were promised funds for food and transportation that were either never or only partially delivered. These practices are counter-productive to social change, as they perpetuate the very systemic oppression we’re fighting. These practices are counter-productive to social change, as they perpetuate the very systemic oppression we’re fighting.

Meanwhile, NGOs are competing for membership and campaign victories, racing for measurable results that will prove to their funders that they deserve yet more money.

In a 9-year period, big greens received over $10 billion in funding, with only 15% of grants (between 2007-2009) allotted to marginalized communities. This discrepancy is appalling, especially given the fact that more money means more institutional costs and infrastructure, which often translates to compromises and watered-down actions.

This top-down funding strategy ignores the history of resistance—that large-scale social change stems from the grassroots and a sturdy leadership from the oppressed peoples who have a vested interest in fighting for freedom.

It’s hard to imagine a popular uprising being initiated by those relying on the comforts of paychecks and organizational stability, so those voices shouldn’t dominate the narrative. Often it’s professional activists heard shouting into megaphones, calling for escalation and taking it to the streets. As economies crash, natural disasters multiply, and countries are torn apart by war, that call rings true.

But what happens when an organization like adopts Occupy’s grassroots message for the purpose of publicizing nationwide direct action trainings, but discourages trainers from promoting civil disobedience because of their organizational politics?

Or when the Natural Resources Defense Council and World Wildlife Fund work with the fossil-fuel industry, the latter quite satisfied to  buy them out and define their own opposition in the process? These examples show a disconnect and an inability to build genuine relationships with those on the ground.

With budgets and voices so loud, the professionals’ messages overshadow the call for uprisings coming from the trenches. Though those cries may not be amplified by megaphones or on the front pages of websites, they can be heard rumbling through the neighborhoods, detention centers, prisons, native reservations, homeless shelters, and broken-down apartment buildings.

So the question is, how will the mainstream respond when front-line communities take to the streets, when communities of color reclaim our power and stand our ground? Will the movement be ready and willing to demonstrate intentional and genuine solidarity?

With anti-oppression on the tip of everyone’s tongues these days, it is critical to remind ourselves that working with those who’ve been historically oppressed is not about atonement of guilt, stroking of egos, or moving personal agendas forward.

Andrea Smith refers to this in a recent piece, as an “  entire ally industrial complex   (that) has developed around the professional confession of privilege.

This practice of atonement perpetuates power imbalances by re-centralizing the voices and experiences of those carrying historical privilege, this time elevating them to the role of righteous confessors. This “anti-oppression” work Smith writes about is missing the mark entirely.

From Naomi Klein to Van Jones, from organizers of the ’99 WTO protest to blockaders of the Keystone XL pipeline in Texas, a similar message resonates: the non-profit industrial complex needs to deepen its class analysis, tackle white supremacy within its own institutions, and dump the colonialist “savior” syndrome.

Professional activists must challenge institutionalized and structural privilege within their own organizations, in terms of air time, resources, influence, and how much space they take up.

What can professional activists do to decolonize the mainstream movement?

1. Make financial resources available to those communities that need it most, rather than filling the bank accounts of multi-million-dollar organizations.

2. Open up seats at the decision-making table for the freedom fighters on the front lines, rather than inviting them for the photo op once all the strategy has been laid out.

3. Get out of the way when those whose stories must be told are speaking up, rather than writing up studies about their experience.

4. Take the time to learn and practice genuine ally-ship that doesn’t translate to condescending tokenism.

To reflect integrity, this process cannot be driven by the need for personal and organizational recognition. Challenging our own internalized -isms is a constant work in progress, one that can take a lifetime.

From the jungles of Mexico, the Zapatistas wisely remind us of the longevity of this process, that we must walk on asking questions—”preguntando caminamos.”

To those of you on the front lines, to the brothers and sisters of color wearing ancestors in our flesh, carrying in our bodies the historical traumas of a system designed to break our spirits and exterminate us, it is a testament to our resilience that we’re still here, that we’ve survived over time.

To those who still wonder when the time for a radical shift will come, it has. Our day-to-day reality won’t be getting scary somewhere down the road, in some distant future—there’s a war being waged against our communities right now!

In this day of climate crises and economic collapse, of lingering white supremacy and patriarchy, the struggle is as much about resistance as it is about community survival programs, as much about taking down the fossil fuel industry as decolonizing our own minds. This moment calls upon us to get real about what that will take from us, what the responsibilities entail, and what real solidarity looks like.

If this movement is serious about winning and shifting our current paradigm, we are going to have to give up some comforts and get out of the way when the times call for it.

Note: Hénia Belalia is on the National Coordinating Committee of Deep Roots United Front, and the former director of Peaceful Uprising. She identifies as a climate justice defender, theater director and day dreamer of collective liberation.
Her work is rooted in a constantly evolving practice of allyship to frontlines of struggle, with a focus on the intersections of environmental and social justice.




March 2023

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