Borderline views: Managing the ravages of freak weather

Flooding in England (photo credit: REUTERS)
Flooding in England
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Experiencing one of the driest Januaries on record, even by Israel’s standards, it is hard to recall that just two months ago we experienced a week of the worst weather in Israeli history. A few days of heavy snow and rains brought much of the country to a standstill, Jerusalem was closed down, schools were on forced vacation, and we marveled at the pictures of a white Israel, something few of us had ever experienced.
Much criticism was leveled at the government and the local authorities for not being prepared for such an eventuality.
The government reaction to coordinate the rescue activities, the clearing of the roads and the restoring of electricity to the thousands of families who had been cut off, mostly due to the falling of trees on electricity lines and pylons due to the weight of the snow, was seen as being too slow and lacking in overall coordination.
Has anyone been watching the news from both the UK and the US in recent weeks? Unprecedented storms and floods throughout Britain have resulted in the flooding of entire communities. Tsunami- style waves have wreaked havoc on coastal communities, especially in the beautiful southwest regions of Devon and Cornwall. Heavy, unceasing, rains have resulted in some of the country’s largest rivers, such as the Severn and the Thames, overflowing their banks and the flood defenses constructed many years ago and thought to be foolproof.
The ground in many inland rural areas has become so saturated that the groundwater has welled up, flooding entire villages and turning large parts of England into lakes. Strong winds have brought down electricity lines and caused damage to buildings and, in some cases, fatalities.
Thousands of houses have been flooded, and the army had to be called in to assist in the evacuation of entire families to safer and drier havens.
The British government, so we are told, should have foreseen this and should have been more prepared to meet this unprecedented weather. It should have reacted quicker, and taken less time to finally recognize that an emergency on such a scale required the use of the military to assist in what is normally seen as purely a civilian matter.
Severe snow storms in the US have caused havoc in a country used to severe weather during the winter months.
Highways have been shut down while fatalities have occurred as a result of chain accidents involving tens of cars. The freezing temperatures, combined with a shutdown of some major transportation services, has meant that hundreds of thousands of Americans have remained at home instead of going to work – in a country which prides itself on being efficient and prepared for most contingencies.
The US authorities, so we are led to understand, are at fault for their failure to foresee the extreme weather conditions and prepare accordingly. There should have been more salting of the highways, the local municipal and police authorities should have reacted quicker, etc. In a country where efficiency is part of the national psyche, the authorities have been criticized for failing to live up to their responsibilities.
Had these harsh weather conditions taken place in a number of third world countries, we would have witnessed tsunami-type devastation of massive proportions with hundreds, if not thousands, of flimsy houses and shacks destroyed, resulting in massive loss of life. We all too easily forget that, at the end of the day, Israel, the UK and the US are countries within which the standards of construction, the system of flood defenses and the organizational capabilities of the various government and rescue services are the best that the world has to offer.
There is always room for improvement and there is little doubt that in all three cases lessons will be learned so that the next round of extreme weather will be dealt with more efficiently. But it will never be efficient enough.
Major criticism in the UK has been leveled at the environmental agencies for the flooding of entire villages along the course of rivers. For the past 15 years, as a result of pressure from the environmental lobby in its well-meaning desire to safeguard the wildlife habitats which were in danger of being destroyed, many of the country’s rivers ceased to be dredged. As a result, silt accumulated over a long period, and the rivers were no longer able to absorb the huge amounts of water from the torrential storms.
The government has now promised to ensure that all the river courses are adequately dredged, while the environmental agencies have wisely maintained a dignified silence in the face of anger on the part of residents whose houses are under water and whose possessions have been destroyed.
In Israel too, the environmental lobby has grown in strength during the past two decades. While we all understand the need to preserve our scarce natural environment against the ravages of unchecked development and construction, it is never a zero-sum game.
It is critical to ensure that our underground water reservoirs are not over-exploited, especially in a country where there is a lack of water. The coastal dunes must not be allowed to erode in the face of municipalities who promote the construction of ever more coastal resorts and luxury marinas with little regard for the natural environment.
But equally the “green” lobby cannot be allowed to oppose each and every project, when so many of them are crucial for the country’s future development. Environmental opposition to the new rail lines to Jerusalem (requiring some major tunneling in the Jerusalem Hills) or to Eilat along the ecologically-sensitive Arava valley, the attempts to prevent the construction of roads and new communities aimed at facilitating the movement of army personnel to the Negev, are a few examples of their failure to recognize that a balance between environmental and other priorities must be sought.
Development of national infrastructure must take place with the least possible ecological damage, and where possible the natural habitat must be restored to its previous state as much as possible once the projects are complete.
But that does not justify the attempts to prevent projects going ahead or delaying them in a round of high court appeals and bureaucracy, when it is clear that such projects serve the national interest.
If the non-dredging of rivers in the UK was a contributive factor to the flooding of villages and houses, then the environmental groups must take part of the blame for the misery caused to thousands of residents who had to be evacuated from their houses. If the slowdown in the construction of critical transportation links in Israel is due to environmental opposition, then these groups must bear the responsibility for the increased use of private transportation (a much more serious environmental problem than the landscaping of areas of natural beauty) and the increased traffic congestion which brings the country to a slowdown on an almost daily basis.
Governments are responsible for ensuring that their response to natural disasters is as efficient as possible, with lessons always being learned for the next time. But we cannot continually criticize governments for freak and unprecedented extremities of the weather, just as we cannot expect them to spend much valuable time justifying everything in the face of environmental opposition which loses its legitimacy when it is unable to reach the appropriate balance between contrasting national priorities, all of which are important.
The writer is dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.