Sh** Happens

Laboratory tests have confirmed that Nepalese UN Peacekeepers accidentally caused the death of 5,000 Haitians from cholera.  The Independent quotes an investigation's conclusion: "The sanitation conditions at the Mirebalais Minustah camp were not sufficient to prevent faecal contamination of the Meye Tributary System of the Artibonite River with human faecal waste". The Artibonite River provided tens of thousands of Haitians with drinking water.

Five thousand dead, 300,000 ill, and a medical emergency that has already lasted six months; now the people of Haiti have someone to blame for the cholera outbreak which has swept through their earthquake-ravaged country: the blue-helmeted peacekeepers of the United Nations.

The UN's glacial response to the initial disaster, and the slow progress of reconstruction efforts – about 750,000 Haitians still live in "temporary" refugee camps – has been a cause of complaint in the capital, Port-au-Prince. With the rainy season approaching, health experts fear cholera could add to their woes by infecting a further 500,000 people.

That would represent a major public relations disaster for the UN mission. Since October, many locals have blamed Nepalese peacekeepers for introducing cholera to their country. Before Christmas, and again last week, the issue sparked protests, with reports of crowds throwing rocks at UN staff.

They came to help and wound up killing thousands. The incident highlights the fragility of an impoverished society. Human communities which live upon the knife's edge, on the margins of nutrition, with barely adequate medical treatment, with no resources to even track down disease vectors can be blown down by the first perturbation.

The Greenies have it wrong. It is not resource abundance but poverty which is unsustainable. Haiti was knocked down by a devastating earthquake. It has may have too little design margin to recover quickly or even to recover at all.  A world of gas lamps, windmills and spinning wheels sounds nice -- until an epidemic or earthquake shows up.

UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, said, he would "convene a task force" within the UN to "study the findings and recommendations". The official panel concluded the epidemic "was not the fault of, or deliberate action of, a group or individual". But always undermining the human desire to preserve is nature tendency to react to intervention in unpredictable ways, sometimes known as the law of unintended consequences. Michael Crichton, before he died, described the park service's disastrous attempt to improve Yellowstone.

Roosevelt saw a thousand antelope, plentiful cougar, mountain sheep, deer, coyote, and many thousands of elk. He wrote, "Our people should see to it that this rich heritage is preserved for their children and their children's children forever, with its majestic beauty all unmarred."

But Yellowstone was not preserved. On the contrary, it was altered beyond repair in a matter of years. By 1934, the park service acknowledged that "white-tailed deer, cougar, lynx, wolf, and possibly wolverine and fisher are gone from the Yellowstone."

What they didn't say was that the park service was solely responsible for the disappearances. Park rangers had been shooting animals for decades, even though that was illegal under the Lacey Act of 1894. But they thought they knew better. They thought their environmental concerns trumped any mere law.

What actually happened at Yellowstone is a cascade of ego and error. ... Nothing in nature is so simple.

Today we think that we can manage the climate by regulating Greenhouse Gases; by taxing certain kinds of activity.  But human action always involves irreducible risk. Even policies designed on the "precautionary principle" or on the basis of a "responsibility to protect" cannot be proofed against the law of unintended consequences. The Nepalese Peacekeepers had a uninvited Irish recruit named Murphy. Sh** happens. It often does.


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