Iceland Volcano and the Need for a Multi-polar World

Published on 20th April 2010

Eyjafjallajokull spills volcanic ash  Photo courtesy
European governments took swift action to avert possible disasters that would have hit the aviation industry due to flying objects and ash from an Iceland volcano. It is estimated that the airline industry in Europe is loosing an estimated $ 200 million per day in revenue with over 63,000 flights cancelled from Thursday. Nature's fury will definitely force planners back on the drawing board on what we define as disasters.  

The Iceland volcano ash is a clear pointer that humanity must take cognizance of nature in its plans. As the world gets increasingly connected, it ought not to loose its geographic sense of the market. Take Kenya, for example, with tones of flowers and vegetables going to waste; industry planners have to factor in diversification of target markets. This time it was a volcano; next time it could be a "volcanic" policy from European Union or whatever government that controls target markets.   

It must difficult to fathom for many that a volcano that erupted in Iceland thousands of miles away caused loss of business to a taxi driver in Kenya. The flower sector in Kenya is estimated to loose Ksh 230 million, Kenya Airways Ksh 80 million and yet to be quantified losses in the tourism sector. The disruption of air traffic in Europe and its direct impact to global connectivity offers a lesson for the urgent need of a multi polar world.   

Many African capitals connect to each other through Europe; for example to fly to Casablanca or The Gambia; passengers connect through Paris among other airports. To connect to United States of America, many African passengers connect through Europe. Airlines traditionally use the home cities as connecting hubs to other destinations.  

Nairobi serves as the main air connectivity node in the country and region. The Iceland ash scenario indicates that such an arrangement is a danger in itself to both national and regional security. In the short run, it augurs well for the economy, but the long run with threats - both natural and manmade - raises concerns that must be addressed. It is not predictable how often volcanoes will hit and where, but the Iceland ash threat calls for a rethink of this model.  

I empathize with all stranded passengers world wide. As a traveler, I can imagine what it means to have abrupt delays and unplanned for expenses popping up from nowhere. I witnessed a scene in one of the major European Union embassies where tens of stranded passengers were registering and applying for support. The Volcano ash and the financial crisis have a lot in common - that once more, governments have found themselves on the frontline of what ordinarily would be seen to be a private affair.   

Is there something African governments can learn from their European counterparts? A lot! African governments must start taking academicians seriously, I doubt that without knowledge of geology and engineering one would shut down a county's airspace given the amount of revenue to be lost. It is also important to have productive citizens that pay for the upkeep of their governments. Otherwise, with a similar disaster, African embassies would be asking for aid.   

The global market system must encourage a multi polar world to ensure competition and "shock absorbers" when disasters strike. Kenya in particular must push for two capital cities. Let Nairobi be a business capital supported by other country wide cities, and position Isiolo as the political capital of Kenya. The Iceland volcanic eruption offers a great lesson that investing in science and scientific knowledge and diversifying operational nodes can avert disasters.    

By James Shikwati. 

James Shikwati is Director of Inter Region Economic Network.

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