Jul 09 2013

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Scientists are running away from problems

On June 20, 2013 mandatory evacuation orders were issued for Calgary, the Alberta’s largest city by population, as a result of flooding. The days leading up to the “2013 Alberta floods”, Alberta experienced heavy rainfall. The 2013 floods effected several areas such as Exshaw, High River and other municipalities and townships. Later that summer, communities along the rivers banks and flood plains were devastated by the consequences of additional downpour. Several mitigation and disaster response ideas have sprung out of this 2013 Alberta floods. This is where opinions of scientists, researchers and general public clashed. I can safely say we hear a lot of strong arguments on different aspects of the “problem” when our neighborhoods are in desperate situations. We also bombarded with “solutions” to these from our politicians and scientists. As a young scientist in training, I find these two groups in North America either want to go against nature or go against social dynamics.

Million solutions without progress

A recent article written by a Geologist on the Calgary Herald newspaper regarding insurance and communities along the flood plains1 drew my attention . It is a well written article against the idea of flood insurance. Dr. Jerry Osborn argued because people are building on flood plains, the premiums for insurance have to increase causing them to be unaffordable for most. He strongly suggested restricting community developments on floodplain using Groeneveld report as a method to protect communities from natural disasters. This is a very good valid point and I agree with the scientific merit behind Dr. Osborn’s argument. However, I have to respectfully disagree with the concept of scientists running away from the problem rather than facing it head-on. I respect Dr. Osborn for being direct about his facts. But at the same time we as a society would have never advanced in our civilization if we ran away from our problems.

This is not the first time I came across well-respected Canadian scientists and researchers formulate their opinions solely on science itself. I have been told numerous times by Geoscience, Natural Science and Engineering professors on why we should not do something due to natural hazards. The problem is not a matter of if there are natural hazards; the problem is scientists are trying to find reasons to run away from problems. One of the best examples of this would be the arguments against placing our Calgary light railway transit system completely underground. Every time I asked a science expert, the arguments are highly negative such as “Calgary soil and strata is not good for underground projects” or “the engineering community needs more data before undertaking such projects”. It sounds like we will be famous in history for running away from problems because unlike the ancient Romans, Geeks or the modern day Indians or Japanese, we do not try to mitigate environmental dynamics, but we are just running away from it. I believe this attitude of too much emphasis of why we can’t do something, hinders our ability to defend our civilizations from natural disasters.

Most scientists who opposed building on floodplains in Alberta promote the idea that if we move away from developments in floodplains, most of our problems will be resolved. That is ironic because even according to scientific principles and the history of science shows that no matter what we do, there is always “side effects”. Let’s say that we move all our communities out of the floodplains. What are the implications for the natural environments? What are the implications for the natural environments? How would redistribution of human populations to other areas affect the environment? In Japan, they found building roads have significantly reduced permeability of soils. Hence the drainage systems have to be upgraded to transport the water that is not soaking into the ground to rivers and the sea. It was an unforeseen environmental problem as a result of human development. The point is to solve the flood plain problem; you may have created several more problems without the foresight of long term future for the City of Calgary. In the long term if we move out so much from current Calgary city limits, we would also move into farmlands and other areas of natural resources causing more problems for our communities. It is ironic that nobody who are against building within highly populated floodplains ignore these “side effects” that may arise as a result of any form of development weather it is on the floodplains or not.

Society and science

The Government of Japan has spend the tax money wisely to the benefit of the people..

Human civilization is unique because unlike animals we can make logical decisions. While we do our best to alter our natural habits, we often go back to the nature’s way. Have you ever wonder why we have large communities around flood plains and volcanoes? Almost every single civilization has been built around naturally unstable grounds. It will be unproductive for modern science to work against these natural social habits. You cannot change our social dynamics to fit the principles of science. But rather you should use the find solutions to social dynamics. This is where those scientists against development on the flood plains fall apart.

Japan has few active volcanoes and suited near a major active fault line. Hence, it is obvious that majority of Japanese are living in environmentally unstable areas than majority of Canadians. If you visit Japan, you will most likely take JR Rail, a service provided by a Japanese state own railway company. Not only the railway line is mostly underground, but they also have large underground shopping complexes in almost all underground train stations. It is ironic that Canadian Geologists and Engineers are against building underground railway system in Calgary because of their claim that ground in Calgary is not suitable. Either we are, as a group of scientist, very lazy or ignorant of possible solutions for our growing needs. I should highlight that I believe the problem of running away is found within our scientific community in Canada rather than the general public.

Here is another example from Japan. In a CBC documentary a Japanese elderly women who seen the volcano near her house erupted said “I am not afraid of the mountain. It provides great opportunities for farming. I have lived all my life here and I will pull myself back up each time it gets erupted”. Now that should resonate throughout Canada because she is right. She is using the nutrient rich volcanic soils to grow rice, which feeds the community. She works with the environment and she understands the natural hazards. The Japanese scientists are very mindful of not to insult these volcanic famers intelligence. In fact, the Government of Japan has spent the tax money wisely to the benefit of the people of Japan with new equipment and research on predicting natural disasters rather than moving communities away from so called “danger zone”. This is what the Scientists in Canada also supposed to do; work with the society. But instead they are more concerned of the bottom line of private companies. Canada is an extremely pro-¬capitalist nation that we look for the revenue and the profit margin over the natural flow of civilization. In fact, I can argue the reason we do not have completely underground commuter railway system in Calgary not because “unstable ground”, but because the Government and the private companies do not want any project that benefit the society. I can also categorically argue that insurance rates increase because the CEOs of Canadian insurance companies would like to take home million dollar bonus. In other words, the profit margin is more of a concern than human dignity and natural civilization.

Two extreme ends never solve problems

With or without the 2013 Alberta floods, these insurance companies will find another avenue to increase premiums.

The attitude should be, yes we can build on a floodplains. I would argue while Dr. Osborn is right, his principles on flood insurance are wrong. Yes the flood may increase the insurance rates. However, it is Canada’s capitalistic class system that causes the insurance rate to increase. With or without the 2013 Alberta floods, these insurance companies will find another avenue to increase premiums. Canadians are hell bent on criticizing the India’s caste system; we often forget to criticize Canada’s class system. Insurance companies increase their premiums to pay off their rich CEOs, not to help out the Canadian public. Unlike in some areas such as in Europe and Asia, there are no regulations to protect the consumers from insurance companies in Canada.

While we are busy arguing against people who would want to live in floodplains, we should also highlight other issues. Tight regulations of insurance providers should be one step. Another would be, just like Japan, we should spend our tax revenue on helping our communities. Why not build infrastructures to control floods? Do not say it is not sustainable to run away from the problems. Yes, it is sustainable because there are many other communities around the world have done it! India and Sri Lanka for example not only have relatively cheap (relative to Indian/Sri Lankan average net income) flood insurance, but they also have highly effective drainage system. During the Asian Monsoon season, the capital of Sri Lanka should be under water. But that is not true and the last time it was under water was during the 2004 tsunami. But in Canada, a small rain fall in Toronto in 8 July 2013 resulted in mass flooding. How come a first world nation be so negative?

Now let’s take the argument of insurance premiums from another point of view. If we have proper infrastructure to divert water away from our major cities along flood plains, why should the insurance premiums for homeowner go up? In fact, it should go down unless the greedy capitalists in Canada want a higher cut for their profit. Dr. Osborn, according Canadians behind you and their logic, ALL Japanese people should commit suicide while ALL Indians and Sri Lankans should drown. To my fellow young Scientists, please do not run away from the problem like typical “Canadians” due to political correctness or to be nice to your professors, but face it like typical “Japanese” or “South Asians”. I am not saying scientific solutions are prefect. But we should think outside the two extremes which our Politicians and Scientists try to promote. It is our responsibility as scientists, to move away from special interest groups and find solutions to challenges rather than running away from them.


1. Osborn: It’s foolish to think worst flood is behind us (PDF)

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