An Environmentally Disastrous Year

Yee Huang

Dec. 30, 2010

a(broad) perspective

In 2010, natural (and unnatural) environmental disasters around the world killed hundreds of thousands of people, displaced millions more, and caused significant air and water pollution as well as human health catastrophes. Insurance giant Swiss Re estimated that these disasters caused an estimated $222 billion in losses. Disasters are overwhelming to begin with, but for countries with limited infrastructure and capacity to respond, these disasters also show that the human rights consequences of an environmental disaster can be severe. Despite the different countries in which these disasters originated, they illustrate a common need for better disaster response and enforcement of laws and regulations to protect the environment.

  • Pakistani Floods. In July, unprecedented monsoon rains led to severe flooding, at one point leaving one-fifth of the country underwater and affecting an estimated 20 million people in the Indus River basin. The floods overwhelmed the country’s infrastructure and led to outbreaks of water-borne diseases, claiming an estimated nearly 2000 lives, including some of the most vulnerable victims, children.
  • Russian Wildfires. In August, more than 800 wildfires ignited the Russian countryside, amidst the worst heat wave in 130 years. The fires and smoke led to severe air pollution, elevating carbon monoxide levels to five times and particulate matter to three times Moscow's acceptable levels.
  • Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. In April, the explosion of the oil-drilling platform Deepwater Horizon led to a gush of oil that continued for three months, spilling an estimated 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. While the full environmental impact of this manmade disaster may not be known for years, it is the largest petroleum spill to date.
  • Hungarian Sludge. In October, more than 200 million gallons of red sludge poured out of the holding reservoir from an aluminum processing plant, flooding three villages with highly polluted water and mud which eventually reached the Danube River. This unnatural environmental disaster brought to light the potential danger from other toxic storage facilities in former Soviet countries, which were once used as heavy industrial sites with little regard for environmental standards.

I note that these are the disasters that made the headlines, while many others—sea level rise in the Marshall Islands, the failure to reach an agreement to protect bluefin tuna, the failure to reach agreement on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol—are equally devastating over time. Here’s hoping that 2011 is a better year.

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