In-depth: Disaster reduction and the human cost of disaster

AFRICA: Natural disasters – a heavy price to pay

Photo: WMO
Forest Fires are another form of natural disaster but which can also cause millions of dollars of damage and destroy homes in a few hours or days
NAIROBI, 1 June 2005 (IRIN) - (June 2005) - Natural disasters are happening more often, and having an ever more dramatic impact on the world in terms of both their human and economic costs.

While the number of lives lost has declined in the past 20 years - 800,000 people died from natural disasters in the 1990s, compared with 2 million in the 1970s - the number of people affected has risen. Over the past decade, the total affected by natural disasters has tripled to 2 billion.

According to the UN’s Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery, some 75 percent of the world’s population live in areas that have been affected at least once by either an earthquake, a tropical cyclone, flooding or drought between 1980 and 2000.

“The tsunami [of December 2004] has come at a time when the world is ready for a new look and a new focus for disaster reduction. We can no longer do business as usual,” Peter Walker, director of the Feinstein International Famine Centre at Tufts University, told IRIN.

“Economies are not changing as fast as climate,” he added.
In December’s tsunami in the Indian Ocean, an estimated 250,000-300,000 people were killed or are still missing, while millions of lives have been upturned, socially and economically, by its impact.


Damaged grain silos and sand covered cropland caused by a Missouri river flood. USA.
Credit: Charlie Rahn/NRCS
The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which publishes a World Disasters Report annually, calculates that from 1994 to 1998, reported disasters averaged 428 per year. From 1999 to 2003, this figure shot up by two-thirds to an average of 707 natural disasters each year. The biggest rise occurred in developing countries, which suffered an increase of 142 percent.

In 2003, there were approximately 700 natural disasters, which killed an estimated 75,000 people and caused about US $65 billion worth of damage, according to a 2004 report by Munich Re, an international insurance company.

Increased frequency: a changing environment

Since 1988, the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters has kept a worldwide emergency database of disasters, called EMDAT. This contains essential information about over 14,000 disasters in the world, dating from 1900, up to the present day.

Natural disasters are divided into three specific groups: hydro-meterological (or weather-related), geophysical and biological. See links for detailed definitions.

EMDAT’s data shows that, over the past decade, the number of natural and technological disasters has risen sharply. Both hydro-meteorological and geophysical disasters have become more common, becoming 68 percent and 62 percent respectively more frequent over the decade. This reflects longer-term trends.

Weather-related disasters still outnumber geophysical disasters by nine to one over the past decade, according to the Federation’s analysis, while floods are the most-reported natural disasters in Africa, Asia and Europe. Storms with high winds are most frequent in the Americas and Oceania.


The earthquake in Kobe 1995 ripped through the city’s infrastructure leaving thousands dead and starting huge fires.
Credit: IRIN/Kobe Conference
The factors most often blamed for the increase in natural disasters are environmental degradation, climate change, population growth (in particular, unplanned urban growth), and the negative results of economic globalisation.

According to Walker, the world has not yet realised the importance of including disaster-reduction strategies in government policy. He told IRIN: “Adaptation to climate change is crucial. For example, there has been a 20 percent increase in severe storms recently. Disasters [as a sector] have suffered from being kept in a niche. Disasters have failed development.”

Poor hardest hit when disaster strikes

Disasters are closely linked to poverty; they can wipe out decades of development in a matter of hours, in a manner that rarely happens in richer countries.

The UN’s Rapid Environmental Assessment of the impact of the December 2004 tsunami noted: “Disproportionately many of the victims of this disaster were poor people who depended on eco-system services and natural resources for their livelihoods.”

Poor people in developing countries are particularly vulnerable to disasters because of where they live. Research shows that they are more likely to occupy dangerous locations, such as flood plains, river banks, steep slopes, reclaimed land and highly populated settlements of flimsy shanty homes.

Munich Re’s annual review of natural catastrophes in 2003 said that the earthquake that devastated Bam in Iran in December of that year killed more than 40,000 people mainly because their housing was not designed to handle a major tremor.

“Traditional buildings of mud brick and heavy roofing are particularly unsafe when earthquakes strike,” the report stated.

A comparison of the impact of natural disasters in industrialised countries compared with developing countries mirror the same vulnerabilities and inequalities that are both the result and cause of unequal global development.

For many development strategists, and critics of globalisation, the vulnerability of the poor in the face of natural disasters is symptomatic of the poverty cycle that forces poorer communities (and nations) into a downward spiral of destitution.

Anthony Spalton of the Federation’s Disaster Preparedness and Response Department told IRIN, “Only recently have we as a sector better understood the relationship between disasters and the erosion of development gains.”

Figures compiled by the World Bank show that between 1990 and 2000, natural disasters resulted in damages constituting between 2 percent and 15 percent of an affected country’s annual GDP.

Europe is not immune to the high economic costs of disaster either. The cost of environmental disasters in Europe is currently $11.4 billion a year and rising, according to the European Environment Agency’s 2003 assessment.


Physical mitigation measures not only protect houses and land at risk - they are symbols of the priority local communities and authorities place on reducing disaster risks.
Credit: Knud Falk/Danish Red Cross
Didier J. Cherpitel, former secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said, in the organisation’s 2002 Disaster Report, “Disasters are first and foremost a major threat to development, and specifically to the development of the poorest and most marginalised people in the world - [disasters] ensure they stay poor.”

For many development strategists, and critics of globalisation, the vulnerability of the poor in the face of natural disasters is symptomatic of the poverty cycle that forces poorer communities (and nations) into a downward spiral of destitution. Their plight is compounded by their inability to mitigate the impacts of the disasters they suffer.

Commenting on how ill-equipped poor countries are to recover from disasters, Anthony Spalton of the Federation’s Disaster Preparedness and Response Department told IRIN, “Only recently have we as a sector better understood the relationship between disasters and the erosion of development gains.”

The unequal burden of financial costs

According to the Federation’s 2004 World Disasters Report, the economic cost of natural disasters has rocketed in recent years. Statistics show that the impacts vary considerably according to the level of human development attained in the countries where disasters strike.

In the past two decades alone, economic losses from natural disasters have multiplied five-fold to $629 billion. Annual losses from weather-related events have increased in real terms from an estimated $3.9 billion in the 1950s to $63 billion in the 1990s, according to the report.

Economically industrialised countries tend to experience higher losses in dollar terms, but the impact as a proportion of the gross domestic product (GDP) is lower. For developing countries, disasters can cause serious setbacks to economic and social development.

According to the Federation’s analysis, disasters in industrialised countries have inflicted an average of $318 million of damage per event - over 11 times higher than the $28 million per disaster in developing countries. This is hardly surprising when the expensive infrastructure of rich countries is taken into account, but the overall impact on the economies of rich countries is, in most cases, negligible.

GDP losses for individual events can be even more devastating: in Honduras in 1998, Hurricane Mitch caused losses equal to a staggering 41 percent of GDP. In terms of the government’s annual tax revenue, the losses amounted to 292 percent.

In specific areas, a natural disaster’s impact can be even higher. In Aceh, Indonesia, the total estimate of damage and losses from the tsunami, according to the UN’s Rapid Environmental Assessment, was $4.45 billion - nearly 97 percent of Aceh’s GDP.


A smoking Mt. Nyiragongo looms large over the city of Goma in eastern DRC, with damage from the January 2002 lava flows in foreground (taken November 2002).
Credit: IRIN
Disasters therefore have serious consequences at every level: for the economy of the nation, for the affected community and for individual households. For every disaster recorded in developing countries there are thousands of stories of personal tragedy, where livelihoods of the vulnerable poor have been wiped out in moments. Whether they are fishermen, shopkeepers, farmers or labourers, a disaster may not only destroy their homes and local facilities, but also their tools, assets, clients, environments and wherewithal to survive. In the case of the 2004 tsunami, millions were affected.

Avoidable deaths?

Despite the increased number of disasters, statistics compiled by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies show that average annual death tolls have dropped from over 75,000 per year (1994 to 1998) to 59,000 per year (1999 to 2003) indicating that to some degree mitigation and early warning provisions may be having an impact. Some argue it is the changing profile of natural disasters which affects the numbers of deaths.

Droughts and famines have proved the deadliest natural disasters worldwide in recent years, accounting for at least 275,000 deaths since 1994 - nearly half the total. However, the current estimate of 250,000 to 300,000 dead and missing from the 2004 tsunami illustrates how a single natural disaster - in this case caused by an underwater earthquake - can hugely eclipse the annual average in minutes.

The impact of disasters in terms of casualties also varies enormously depending on the level of development in the country concerned. During the past decade, disasters in industrialised countries killed an average of 44 people per event, while disasters in developing countries killed an average of 300 people each.

From 1994 to 2003, deaths per reported disaster were on average seven times higher in countries of low development than in highly developed countries. These figures say nothing of the impact on communities who have to care for and live with those maimed and rendered disabled by a disaster.

Medical and emergency-assistance facilities available in rich and poor countries are vastly different. In many countries, where the health system is barely functioning or grossly under-resourced, the assistance given to victims of disasters may be non-existent or minimal, which results in many more deaths and injuries. In some cases, secondary health-consequences, such as the spread of disease, may also claim lives due to dysfunctional emergency health-services following a disaster.

In many industrialised countries, early-warning systems can mitigate loss of human life, as they trigger stand-by emergency services in advance of natural disasters. When countries lack the resources or organisation for early-warning mechanisms, casualties are inevitably greater.

Opportunities and inequalities in recovery

Because natural disasters hit poor people the hardest, implementing effective disaster-recovery programmes, if they are well-targeted, may be an effective means of reducing poverty, according to reports by the ProVention Consortium – an international network of public, private, non-governmental and academic organisations dedicated to reducing the impact of disasters in developing countries.

Recovery assistance can not only restore the economic stability that existed prior to the disaster, but can surpass a country’s previous, often unsustainable, survival systems. Increasingly, development agencies, banks and governments see an opportunity to offer more sustainable, organised alternatives when implementing recovery programmes for communities.


Flooded house on sea shore during advance of Hurricane Ivan. A flooded house stands on the sea shore of Playa Cana, in the Province of Pinar del Rio, as Hurricane Ivan advances near the western part of Cuba, September 13, 2004.
Credit: REUTERS/Henry Romero/courtesy of IFRC
A chance to change arises, as does the opportunity to avoid a development path where further natural or technological disasters are likely. These opportunities, however, are often not taken due to lack of vision, planning or resources.

In most industrialised countries, property and life are insured against loss or destruction. This allows for a faster recovery, which helps individuals and communities – as well as the country as a whole - to minimise the economic and social damage caused by a disaster. Of course, most of those affected by natural disasters are not insured against loss or damage, as they struggle against the odds merely to survive.

According to Munich Re’s 2004 report, of the 700 natural disasters that took place that year, insured losses accounted for only $15.8 billion of the $65 billion damage.

For poorer countries, disasters represent serious setbacks in terms of any meagre economical advances. Recovery is slow or impossible due to an absence of any mechanism of insurance or government recovery-programme. In addition, any reconstruction, or repeat investment, that follows a disaster will invariably divert funds away from development programmes to emergency relief and recovery.

Preparation is the key to mitigation

Investment in preparedness pays. Investing in strategies to mitigate the impact of disasters is not only compassionate, and a government responsibility, but it also makes economic sense.

“Progress in the meteorological and hydrological sciences shows that the impacts of natural hazards can be reduced through prevention and preparedness,” Michel Jarraud, secretary-general of World Meteorological Organisation, stated in March 2004.

The World Bank and the US Geological Survey estimate that economic losses worldwide from natural disasters in the 1990s could have been reduced by $280 billion if $40 billion had been invested in preventive measures. While the wisdom of hindsight is powerful, in a world of competing and scarce resources $40 billion is no small amount to invest in preventive measures – against disasters which optimistic government officials may prefer to bet will not take place.

In China, the World Bank estimated that the $3.15 billion spent on flood control over the past four decades of the 20th century averted losses of about $12 billion.

A study focusing on the potential benefits of mitigation in Jamaica and Dominica showed that, in specific cases, investing in mitigation would have resulted in big gains. In relation to infrastructure like ports and schools, the benefits – calculated as ‘avoided losses’ in the event of a natural disasters – would have been between two to four times the value of the investment.


Locals flee the swams of locusts that invaded Senegal in August 2004. What started as a nuisance in 2004 developed into a natural disaster causing widespread food deficit in western Africa in 2005.
Credit: IRIN
Better satellite forecasting and early-warning systems may be partly responsible for less people dying from hydro-meteorological disasters. The acceptance of disaster-preparedness, where international financial institutions, national governments and large development agencies see mitigation strategies as an important part of their work, is now recognised as crucial by experts on disaster-risk reduction.

However, the real key to mitigating loss of human life lies in community preparedness and education about risk reduction. “Had we invested in risk reduction before, the damage that the tsunami has done to achieving the Millennium Development Goals would be far less,” Spalton told IRIN at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Japan, in January 2005.

“One of the main reasons we are here [Kobe] is to see that [investment in risk reduction] become reality. For governments to come up with cash and resources, for investment in local, regional and national disaster-mitigation and preparedness,” Spalton explained.

Salvano Briceno, head of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, told IRIN he was optimistic about change: “The world has advanced enormously since the Yokohama conference [on disaster reduction in 1994]. There is now a high awareness of vulnerability and natural disasters and the higher frequency of disasters.

“We have an increased knowledge of disasters caused by environmental degradation and global warming in particular, which is resulting in a rise in sea levels. There is no doubt that disaster reduction is more relevant; although there is more awareness, there is also more vulnerability, so it is a double-edged sword.”

Despite Briceno’s optimism, it remains to be seen whether international finance institutions, banks, governments and development agencies will rise to the challenges presented to them by the increasing number and severity of natural disasters. To what extent will the lessons learnt from the recent tsunami, and the resolutions of the Kobe world conference, be implemented to reduce the pain and loss disasters cause throughout the world?

Perhaps more relevantly, questions remain concerning the estimated 2 billion people affected by natural disasters in the past decade: what quality of life can they hope to recover, and will their development reduce or increase the chances of future disaster?