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Report: Human Actions Worsen Natural Disasters

More people worldwide are displaced by natural disasters than by conflict. In the 1990s, natural catastrophes such as hurricanes, floods, and fires affected more than two billion people and caused in excess of $608 billion in economic losses worldwide -- a loss greater than during the previous four decades combined.

But more and more of the devastation wrought by such natural disasters is "unnatural" in origin, caused by ecologically destructive practices and an increasing number of people living in harm's way, finds a new study by the Worldwatch Institute, a
Washington D.C.-based environmental research organization.

"By degrading forests, engineering rivers, filling in wetlands, and destabilizing the climate, we are unraveling the strands of a complex ecological safety net," said Janet Abramovitz, Worldwatch senior researcher and author of Unnatural Disasters. "We have altered so many natural systems so dramatically, their ability to protect us from disturbances is greatly diminished."

Also contributing to the rising toll of disasters is the enormous expansion of the human population and the built environment, which put more people and more economic activities in harm's way. One in three people -- some two billion -- now live within 100 kilometers of a coastline.

Thirteen of the world's 19 megacities (with more than 10 million inhabitants) are in coastal zones. The projected effects of global warming, such as more extreme weather events and sea level rise, will only magnify potential losses, Abramovitz said.

Although "unnatural disasters" occur everywhere, their impact falls disproportionately on poor people as they are more likely to be living in vulnerable areas and they have fewer resources to prepare for or recover from disasters. Between 1985 and 1999, 96% of recorded disaster fatalities were in developing countries.

According to estimates from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), future impacts of climate extremes will affect the poor disproportionately. Viet Nam and Bangladesh, for example, are projected to lose more than 70,000 square kilometers of land, affecting some 32 million people. And rich countries will not be spared: The Mediterranean coast is especially vulnerable to sea level rise, as are the U.S.'s Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Economic losses from "unnatural disasters" are greater in the developed world -- the earthquake that rocked Kobe, Japan in 1995, for example, cost more than $100 billion, making it the most expensive natural disaster in history. Smaller losses often hit poor countries harder, where they represent a larger share of the national economy. The damage from 1998's Hurricane Mitch in Central America was $8.5 billion -- higher than the combined gross domestic product of Honduras and Nicaragua, the two nations hardest hit.

Few of the losses in poor countries are insured. In the period 1985-99, the vast majority of insured losses -- some 92% -- were in industrial nations.

"Expanding the financial safety net for poor countries is essential," Abramovitz said. "So too is maintaining and restoring nature's ecological safety net in all countries. Dunes, barrier islands, mangrove forests and coastal wetlands are natural 'shock absorbers' that protect against coastal storms. Forests, floodplains, and wetlands, are 'sponges' that absorb floodwaters. Nature provides these services for free, and we should take advantage of them rather than undermining them."

For example, China now recognizes that forests are 10 times more valuable for flood control and water supply than they are for timber, and has halted logging in the Yangtze River watershed. The loss of 85% of the forests in the upper Yangtze River worsened the 1998 flood that affected 223 million people. Viet Nam has restored 2,000 hectares of mangroves in a successful effort to provide a buffer from coastal storms as well as much-needed jobs in fisheries.

Abromovitz said the U.S. could prevent a repeat of the devastating 1993 Mississippi flood by restoring just half of the wetlands lost in the upper Mississippi Basin -- a move that would affect no more than 3% of surrounding agricultural, forest, and urban land.

To date, much of the response to disasters has focused on improving weather predictions before the events and providing humanitarian relief afterwards -- both of which have saved countless lives.

"Yet, too often long-term mitigation efforts are overlooked by the public and politicians alike," Abramovitz said. "Money invested in disaster mitigation yields several fold returns in recovery cost savings. Considering the social and ecological losses that are also prevented, it's clear that mitigation is a great investment."

Unnatural Disasters suggests several other specific mitigative measures:
  • Community-based disaster preparedness is essential in preventing and responding to the full array of disasters that societies now face.

  • Rather than subsidizing environmentally unsound settlement and development practices, governments need to direct new construction and settlement out of harm's way.

  • Infrastructure in vulnerable locations can be built or reinforced to withstand hazards.

  • Debt relief for developing nations can free up resources for desperately needed disaster prevention efforts.

  • Better hazard mapping can further improve early warning and disaster preparedness schemes, keeping human and economic losses as low as possible.
Purchasing information: Unnatural Disasters costs $5 and can be purchased through Worldwatch.


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