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Nothing natural about these disasters': UNDP report

The UNDP's 'Reducing Disaster Risk: A Challenge for Development' cautions that natural disasters put an enormous strain on development and are a serious threat to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, particularly the target of halving extreme poverty by 2015

A team led by the UNDP has brought out a report on global trends in exposure, risk and vulnerability to natural disasters. The report titled 'Reducing Disaster Risk: A Challenge for Development' analyses global data from the past two decades and concludes that a lot of the death and destruction brought on by natural disasters in poor countries can be averted by better planning and systematic risk analysis.

The report says that between 1980 and 2000 approximately 1.5 million people died in earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tropical storms, droughts and other 'natural disasters'. With better preparedness, it claims, many if not all these lives could have been saved.

The report developed a Disaster Risk Index for over 200 countries and territories, enabling the UNDP to compare the vulnerability of various countries to different natural hazards by evaluating the number of people killed with the number of people exposed to four major disasters -- earthquakes, floods, cyclones and drought. For example, the relative physical exposure to a tropical cyclone in the Philippines is over three times higher than it is in Bangladesh. But the number of deaths caused by cyclones is 10 times higher in Bangladesh than it is in the Philippines.

The risk index also provides evidence of the links between poverty and vulnerability to disasters.

Billions of people in more than a hundred countries are exposed to at least one earthquake, cyclone, flood or drought in their lifetime, the authors point out. On average, natural disasters cause 184 deaths a day. But what is of most concern is that the death rate is far greater in poor countries than it is in wealthier nations, even if the incidence and intensity of the disaster is the same.

Only 11% of people exposed to natural hazards live in poor countries. But they account for more than 53% of the total number of recorded deaths. During the past two decades the Democratic People's Republic of Korea had the highest annual per capita death rate from disasters (606 per million), followed by Mozambique (328), Armenia (324), Sudan (275) and Ethiopia (273), the study notes.

About 130 million people were exposed to earthquakes each year between 1980 and 2000. During the same period, a total of nearly 160,000 deaths were associated with earthquakes around the world.

An analysis of vulnerability shows that poorer countries with frequent earthquakes -- such as Iran, Afghanistan and India -- suffer proportionally far greater loss of life than others with equivalent seismic activity, such as Japan or the United States. Further analysis shows that the risk of dying in an earthquake is greater in poor countries with rapid urban growth.

"But, irrespective of the presence of natural hazards in a country, be it earthquakes, floods, droughts or cyclones, there is a range of development factors that determine the probability of people being killed," says Mark Malloch Brown, UNDP administrator. These include issues such as the concentration of people in earthquake-prone cities, in flood-prone valleys or in exposed coastal areas.

Around 84 countries are exposed to tropical cyclones. Countries most at risk have highly populated coastal areas and especially densely populated deltas, such as Bangladesh, China, India, the Philippines and Japan. Bangladesh accounted for more than 60% of registered deaths in the period 1980-2000.

Cuba and Mauritius, by contrast, were ranked least vulnerable despite having relatively large populations exposed to cyclones -- a status attributable in good part to superior disaster preparedness.

The report commends a cyclone preparedness programme in Bangladesh, which, by coupling cyclone shelters and community-based preparedness measures, dramatically reduced levels of vulnerability in the 1970s to the albeit still-high levels observed during the 1980-2000 reporting period.

The study found that flood vulnerability is tied to a country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, which is inversely correlated to the number of recorded deaths. There is a negative correlation between death from flooding and local population density. Consequently, countries with a low GDP per capita, greater number of exposed people and low population density are most at risk from flooding.

Economic impact

The report also looks at the economic impact of disasters, which, combined with the human toll, can be devastating for people already living on the margins of society.

In the 1990s, disasters set back development by US$660 billion. But the majority of these losses were concentrated in wealthier countries. The assessed financial damage, therefore, does not adequately illustrate the impact of disasters on the poor.

This new report argues that economic losses from disasters aggravate other financial, political, health and environmental difficulties. The authors claim that disaster risks must be taken into account in global planning in order to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. "It is clear that natural disasters wield an enormous toll on development, and in so doing, pose a significant threat to achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, in particular the overarching target of halving extreme poverty by 2015," says Mark Malloch Brown.

According to the report disaster losses may be either direct -- physical damage to roads, electricity supplies, homes, schools and office buildings -- or indirect, including a disruption in productivity and loss of earnings. Most data available on the cost of disasters relate to direct losses. Figures on the true cost of a natural disaster (including indirect or secondary loss) may not be available for several years after the event, if ever.

Only time will reveal the actual pace of recovery and precise nature of indirect and secondary impact. Ongoing research suggests that the secondary effects of disasters have a significant impact on long-term human development. Most obviously, disasters affect the pace and nature of capital accumulation, the report says.

"In a sense, this report is arguing that there is nothing natural about these disasters," says Andrew Maskrey, co-author of the report and chief of UNDP's Geneva-based Disaster Reduction Unit. "The impact of disasters can be sharply reduced if governments make an effort to reduce the risk before a disaster happens, rather than rush to respond after the damage has been done."

The report urges governments to:

  • Develop a better understanding of the depth and extent of disaster hazards and vulnerability.
  • Use the best available data and risk analysis as a basis for policy decisions.
  • Incorporate disaster risk in regulatory procedures, keeping in mind factors that increase vulnerability, such as dense urban growth in earthquake-prone areas.
  • Include disaster risk assessment as an integral part of development planning -- particularly in post-disaster reconstruction efforts.

(InfoChange News & Features, February 2004)