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Opinion: Not utterly powerless

Never before has there been a typhoon as disastrous as Haiyan in the Philippines. Mankind can't prevent natural disasters, but people can do more to protect themselves, says DW's Judith Hartl.

Typhoons are not a rare occurrence in the Philippines. Every year, at least 20 such storms lash the islands. People there live with them; they've come to terms with the elements. But Haiyan is different. There has probably never been such a gigantic storm anywhere in the world. It made landfall at a speed of up to 350 kilometers per hour and barreled over villages and cities.

Judith Hartl Koordinatorin Wissen und Umwelt Hintergrund Deutschland Foto DW

Judith Hartl is DW's science correspondent

There's no reason to criticize the people there. Many houses may be cheaply built, but such a storm would have swept away or at least severely damaged storm-safe buildings in Central Europe, too. The Philippines' early warning system also worked quite well, and their emergency management is regarded as exemplary. The situation would have been much worse without the preventive measures that were taken.

All the same, countries regularly hit by such storms must rethink how they want to prepare themselves in the future. That affects Asian nations like the Philippines, India, Japan and Bangladesh as well as hurricane areas like the USA, Mexico and the Caribbean. One thing is certain: there may not necessarily be more storms in the future, but they will be more extreme and severe.

Scientists presume that could be related to climate change, but they can't say so for certain. It is a known fact, however, that water temperatures are rising. And as the ocean gets warmer, there's more energy in the rotation of the air in the whirlwind as it develops, and it draws up more water.

We humans are powerless. We can't prevent such forces of nature by announcing arbitrary two-degree goals that have been a matter of discussion for many years at inconclusive climate summits. But we can do a better job of protecting ourselves. We can develop certain adaptation strategies, such as well-thought-out early warning and evacuation systems, or better coastal protection with higher levees and improved drainage facilities for low-lying coastal regions.

The states which are threatened must also ask themselves whether the regions hardest-hit should in future have far fewer inhabitants, or if they should be inhabited at all. In addition, healthy forest management with a robust mix of trees would better ward off gusts of wind and protect people much better than the ubiquitous monocultures do now. These are issues which the representatives of the UN climate summit in Warsaw should discuss - and act on.

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