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Devastation, not the name, matters in a cyclone

Climate change is now increasingly engaging the attention of policy planners and administrations of Middle East and North African countries

Gulf News

Dubai: The gender bias in the naming of deadly hurricanes has gone against women, with all the recent catastrophic storms taking feminine forms, while those named after men just played out without making any ‘mark’. Rita, Katrina, Irene and now Sandy have all wreaked havoc.

Theories abound as to how hurricanes began to be know by feminine names, with a few even suggesting that the predictably unpredictable temperament of, please note, some women may have influenced this practice. Due credit must be given to the feminists in getting the World Meteorological Organisation to settle for a system in 1978, under which the practice of naming hurricanes only after women was abandoned for good and, a new procedure put in place to use both male and female names. But strange weather combinations, air collusions and pressure differences are apparently conspiring to frustrate a more equitable and acceptable solution to the gender bias as hurricanes named after women continue to cause more widespread damage, deaths and destruction.

By all accounts, Sandy was the largest tropical storm ever recorded over the Atlantic Ocean, inflicting total losses of up to $50 billion by preliminary estimates, which is some $5 billion more than the damage caused by Katrina, the fiercest until last month, not counting the number of lives lost.

While the pain and sense of loss will linger on for a long time, it is truly remarkable how the American public, administration and business have managed to take the situation in their stride and see how best to come out of it. The widespread destruction of private property, public utilities and infrastructure will mean investments of tens of billions of dollars in repair and reconstruction, apart from a major boost in the demand for products and services, including automobiles, machineries and engineering goods, and this has been recognised as triggering a ripple effect in the economies of the states. Some feel this might even speed up the US economic recovery. Most importantly, the reconstruction activity is expected to be funded through insurance claims.

This will undoubtedly put a major load on the global insurance industry, the repercussions of which will be felt in every part of the world, including the Arabian Gulf. The insurance industry has the consolation that much of 2012 passed off relatively easier, although the possibility of more such natural calamities would mean fatter premiums and more diversified coverage in the days to come.

There are particularly important lessons for the Gulf region and the Middle East, where weather extremes are now posing far bigger danger to countries and populations than ever before. Climate change is now increasingly engaging the attention of policy planners and administrations of Middle East and North Africa (Mena) countries. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, climate in most of the region is predicted to become hotter and drier, leading to increased pressure on ground water resources and occurrences of drought. The result would be a looming water supply shortage.

With sea levels expected to rise by about 0.1 to 0.3 meters by 2050,and by about 0.1 to 0.9 meters by 2100, the threat is relatively higher for the Mena region compared to the rest of the world. Low-lying coastal areas of the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Egypt are believed to be particularly at risk from this phenomenon.

The memories of cyclone Gonu, which devastated parts of Oman, are still fresh in memory. The cyclone that hit the Sultanate in 2007 with winds of 160 miles per hour caused widespread loss of life, apart from serious damage to infrastructure. The reconstruction effort in the past five years, however, has restored the damage, providing a much-needed impetus to the country’s economy in this process.

Similarly, natural disasters are becoming a regular occurrence in Saudi Arabia, where a devastating flood in the wake of torrential rain claimed at least 100 lives in 2009, followed by another major flood this year, claiming the lives of dozens of people and causing widespread damage to private and public properties.

When it comes to natural disasters, it is the extent of devastation that matters, and not the name by which it is known.