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Natural Disasters Don’t Kill Equally

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A magnitude 6.8 earthquake rocked the Moroccan province of Al Haouz last month, destroying an estimated 50,000 homes and killing nearly 3000. The region is poor, rural, and largely populated by the marginalized Amazigh people. Unsurprisingly, they receive little state support, and most of their substandard buildings didn’t stand a chance against the quake.

Some 4000 kilometers east, Storm Daniel flooded Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey before lurching southward to do its worst, obliterating two dams near the Libyan city of Derna and killing potentially a fifth of the city’s population. These dams were time bombs: neither saw any maintenance in over a decade, a consequence of Libya’s civil war and political instability.

Capitalism is driving climate change – we know that for certain, and climate change supercharges the intensity of most natural disasters. The catastrophic downpours that battered the globe this summer, for instance, are exacerbated by the increased capacity hot air has for holding water. As time goes on, “extreme weather” is becoming so frequent, it’s almost more normal than extreme.

But besides preventing climate change, the society we live in should have a responsibility to plan and construct infrastructure that can weather the worst of the elements and protect the masses of workers who populate most of this planet. In reality, the profit-driven system of capitalism has shown itself completely incapable, and it will be up to working people to build a society up to the task.

Capitalism Produces Shoddy Housing

In the High Atlas villages of Al Haouz, homes are constructed primarily with mud brick, rammed (compressed) earth, and stone. These materials produce buildings that are very effective at protecting residents from scorching heat – more effective than concrete – and are also valued for reasons of cultural preservation. But crucially, it’s far less expensive to source local, natural materials than it is to purchase and transport concrete and steel deep into the mountains. As structural engineering professor Mehrdad Sasani succinctly expressed: “The most important reason for that area being so drastically affected by the earthquake is the lack of socioeconomic resources.”

Higher quality building construction is not strictly a question of materials. Where concrete and steel rebar have been implemented in working-class Moroccan neighborhoods, it is often done sloppily. The mere presence of these stronger materials emboldens some builders to cut corners: mixing concrete with muddy water or using less rebar than necessary. 

The earthquakes that struck Turkey, Syria, and Kurdistan earlier this year saw even some of the newest buildings fail. Most collapsed buildings in Turkey were constructed with non-ductile concrete, whereas ductile concrete integrates sufficient steel reinforcement to provide both strength and flexibility. Turkey passed a code decades ago mandating construction with ductile concrete, but widespread government “construction amnesties” provided wide latitude for building companies tied to the government to bypass standards and rake in money.

There is evidence that traditional North African building methods can be quite resilient when proper technique is used, but the multifaceted pressures of a capitalist world have degenerated these techniques, resulting in more vulnerable buildings. For instance, blocks of rammed earth need up to ten days of fermentation in the mold to fully develop its mechanical properties. This typically yields a master builder just two or three blocks a day, but under the financial constraints of capitalism, modern builders will find this output insufficient and rush the process. Much traditional knowledge has also been lost regarding discerning proper quality of earth, production of mud bricks, and the maintenance and repair of old structures.

The traditional architectural typology for these materials was the qsar, a dense, multi-story, fortified village, with a high degree of connectivity between walls, stairs, and roofs and a level of articulation that could provide some seismic protection. With the growth of capitalism, and especially in the aftermath of Moroccan independence, people began moving out of the qsour into scattered settlements of independent homes, desiring “freedom” and seeing the old qsour as crowded remnants of the past. These new buildings were still constructed with traditional materials, but lacked the stability and flexibility of the interconnected qsour.

Well-placed, well constructed buildings, by contrast, can withstand considerable destructive forces. The Hagia Sophia, the iconic mosque in Istanbul, was built 1500 years ago on bedrock. Its structures have survived over a dozen major earthquakes. In Tokyo, affluent districts receive seismic springs and other protections in their buildings, while poorer areas lack them. 

In a society where it’s more profitable to build shabby buildings for working class people, earthquakes do not destroy equally. A socialist society could save countless lives by producing structurally stable, ductile housing for working people, concentrating neighborhoods on bedrock where possible, and integrating earthquake protection features like base isolation and damping devices.

Workers Overexposed To Floods

The impact of Storm Daniel in Libya was made catastrophic by the long-term neglect of the Mansour and Derna dams. Built in the 1970s for crop irrigation, household water, and flood control, the dams sustained storm damage and cracks were apparent for decades. 2 million Euros were allocated for repairs, but the contracts were never completed. This is unsurprising in a country thrust into a protracted internal conflict over, among other things, control of Libya’s vast oil resources, following the NATO-backed overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Of course, flood risks are globally pervasive, affecting far more than communities in war-torn nations, but they always hit working-class and poor people the hardest. 23% of the world’s population (1.81 billion people) would be exposed in the event of a 1-in-100 year flood. Of those people, 43% live on less than $5.50 per day and 89% live in poor or middle-income countries. These are parts of the world that have far fewer and lower quality flood protection systems than high income countries have – and sometimes none at all.

Working-class people often live in more flood-prone areas because housing can be cheaper and jobs are closer. For instance, rent in flood-prone neighborhoods of Accra and Addis Ababa are 14-56% lower than unexposed neighborhoods, and workers in Dar es Salaam who have experienced multiple floods live over 25 minutes closer to their workplaces than workers who have not been hit by floods.

This is largely a result of dangerous urbanization plans driven by capitalism worldwide, which develop concrete jungles on top of floodplains and eliminate wetlands. Wetlands normally serve as critical natural attenuators for storm surges: they’re able to slow down and spread out floodwaters, some of which can be absorbed by the ground. Urban development and concretization, on the other hand, increases runoff and causes more severe flooding. Areas with lost wetlands can see flood peaks increase by up to 80%.

Capitalism is unable to reclaim floodplains and reconstruct wetlands on the scale that would be needed to seriously reduce flood risk. The cost of moving sections of urban areas is too great. Under socialism, working people could decide on development priorities democratically, not with an aim to maximize profit. This way, we could prioritize building high quality affordable housing in flood-safe locations, expand public transit to connect farther flung neighborhoods as needed, and we could de-urbanize vast floodplains and wetlands, restoring them to as close to their natural state as possible.

Completely Unprepared For Fires

Forest fires are now burning almost twice as much tree cover worldwide as they did 20 years ago, a trend enormously fueled by the hotter, drier conditions caused by climate change. The 72 million homes at risk of wildfire damage in the US are growing. As a result, many US insurance companies have canceled homeowners’ insurance policies, unable to guarantee steady profits from at-risk homes. As it turns out, higher wildfire risk is well-correlated with higher poverty rate, and majority Native American, Black, or Hispanic communities are far more vulnerable to wildfires than other populations. If their policies are terminated, many working-class homeowners will be left with no affordable options. Some homeowners are able to keep their insurance by making investments in protective measures, like fire-rated roofs and dual-pane windows, but it’s no guarantee – many will get dropped anyway after shelling out thousands. But many workers simply won’t be able to afford these kinds of investments at all.

The wildfires in Maui, said to be the worst disaster in Hawaii’s history, also razed many uninsured working-class homes. Many Maui residents, especially Native Hawaiians, pass down homes generationally and aren’t required to have insurance, which many wouldn’t be able afford anyway. Renters on the other hand, who are some of the most rent-burdened in the country, face a worsening housing crisis in the aftermath of the disaster.

The scale of this destruction was preventable. Despite its tropical climate, 0.5% of Hawaii’s land burns each year, a fraction on par with or greater than other states. Regardless, in 2022, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency ranked wildfires to be a “low” threat to humans. But Hawaii’s fire departments and prevention programs have been underfunded for years. Maui has just 65 firefighters working at any one time, shared across three islands. A $1.5 million bill to fund firebreaks and water infrastructure, itself completely inadequate, died in committee last year. Meanwhile, Hawaiian Electric admitted that its power lines, miles of which were left uninsulated and carried by dilapidated power poles, caused at least one of the fires. The company spent less than $245,000 on mitigating wildfire risk on Maui between 2019 and 2022, while the president of its parent company doubled his pay to $3.6 million.

We need a system that can rapidly take necessary measures to manage land for fire risk: to clear flammable vegetation, create firebreaks, invest in fire-protective measures for buildings, and upgrade power lines. This is a substantial amount of unprofitable work, but could provide thousands of well-paying union jobs. The insurance industry needs to be scrapped entirely and replaced with a free system that would fully compensate homeowners in the event of disaster. 

We Need Socialism

Capitalism is, with one hand, destroying the planet, and with the other, overexposing workers to the worst effects of disasters. It simply can’t help itself. Capitalists make decisions based on how much money they can make in the short term, not how many lives may be lost in the event of disaster. The state is governed by the same logic, prioritizing business incentives over disaster prevention, only to oversee losses that dwarf its disaster budget. So when people die, homes are wrecked, or neighborhoods are rendered uninhabitable – these are not mere tragedies, but the preventable outcomes of crimes by the bosses.

Disaster mitigation and avoidance are absolutely possible, but the profit motive needs to be removed from the picture. Only a socialist society can bring these solutions to their full potential. 

The very people who can bring about a socialist transformation of society are the billions of working people who, in any given year, are exposed to disasters caused by the neglect of the capitalist class. By rallying together around a program of demands – for high quality affordable housing, for environmentally responsible infrastructure development, for disaster-proof power grids fueled by clean energy, for free healthcare and more – a mass working-class movement can end the anarchic system of capitalism, reverse climate change, and keep people safe.

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