|Numbers of great natural disasters per year,
Graph shows increasing trend in frequency of
'great' natural disasters. Catastrophes are classed as great if
the ability of the region to help itself is overtaxed, making inter-regional
or international assistance necessary, as is usually the case when
thousands of people are killed, hundreds of thousands made homeless
or when a country suffers substantial economic losses
Source: Munich Re 2001
People and the environment are increasingly suffering
from the effects of natural disasters. There are a number of reasons for
this such as high population growth and density, migration and unplanned
urbanization, environmental degradation and possibly global climate change.
The sheer scope of the socioeconomic impacts of natural disasters has
brought about a shift in the political approach to dealing with the concept
of risk in modern societies.
Comparing the past two decades, the number of people killed in natural
and non-natural disasters was higher in the 1980s (86 328 annually) than
in the 1990s (75 252 annually). However, more people were affected by
disasters in the 1990s - up from an average of 147 million a year in the
1980s to 211 million people a year in the 1990s. While the number of geophysical
disasters has remained fairly steady, the number of hydrometeorological
disasters (those caused by water and weather) has increased (see figure).
In the 1990s, more than 90 per cent of those killed in natural disasters
lost their lives in hydrometeorological events such as droughts, windstorms
and floods. While floods accounted for more than two-thirds of people
affected by natural disasters, they are less deadly than many other types
of disaster, accounting for only 15 per cent of deaths (IFRC 2001).
The social and economic costs of disasters vary widely and are difficult
to estimate on a global basis. Insurance claims tend to be misleading
as an estimate of the economic impact of disasters. Considering insured
damage claims for the 1999 floods in Austria, Germany and Switzerland,
at least 42.5 per cent of damage was covered by disaster insurance. But
in Venezuela the same year, only 4 per cent of flood damage was covered
(CRED-OFDA 2002). There is a need for reliable and systematic data on
disasters to help assess their socio-economic and environmental impacts
in both the short and the long term. But although communities in developing
countries suffer from numerous local-scale disasters such as wildfires,
small floods, droughts and pest infestations, these are often not reflected
in disaster statistics.
|Economic costs of great natural disasters (US$billion),
In comparison with the 1960s, economic losses
during the 1990s increased by a factor of almost nine
Note: chart shows only the cost of 'great' natural
catastrophes - see figure above for definition
Source: Munich Re 2001
The most expensive disasters in purely financial
and economic terms are floods, earthquakes and windstorms but events such
as drought and famine can be more devastating in human terms. While earthquakes
accounted for 30 per cent of estimated damage, they caused just 9 per
cent of all fatalities due to natural disasters. In contrast, famine killed
42 per cent, but accounted for just 4 per cent of damage over the past
decade (IFRC 2001). In 1999, global financial losses from natural catastrophic
events were estimated to exceed US$100 billion - the second highest figure
on record. A total of 707 large events were recorded compared to 530 to
600 events in previous years. It is even more striking that the number
of major catastrophic events over the past decade has increased threefold
in comparison with the 1960s, while the rate of economic losses has increased
by a factor of almost nine over the same period (Munich Re 2001).
Between 1995 and 1997, the impacts of natural hazards cost the United
States at least US$50 billion a year, or the equivalent of about US$1
billion a week (IDNDR 1999a). The economic losses of the United States
because of the 1997-98 El Niņo event were estimated at US$1.96 billion
or 0.03 per cent of GDP. Ecuador suffered equivalent financial losses
but this represented 11.4 per cent of its GDP. The floods in China in
1991, 1994-95 and 1998 caused losses ranging from US$20 to 35 billion
(CNC-IDNDR 1999). The annual loss from natural disasters over the period
from 1989 to 1996 is estimated to range from 3 to 6 per cent of China's
GDP, averaging 3.9 per cent. In December 1999, the Anatol, Lothar and
Martin storms generated losses in northern Europe amounting to US$5-6
billion (Munich Re 2001). Less developed countries with limited economic
diversity and poor infrastructure must not only rely mostly on external
relief if a disaster happens but their economies need more time to recover.
In developed economies, governments, communities and individuals have
greater capacities to cope with disasters, the economic losses are to
some extent absorbed by a diversified economy, and most assets are insured.
|Recent disasters caused by extreme
The year 2000
- Mongolian herders had their hardest winter for 30 years - 2.4
million livestock died and 45 per cent of the country's population
- In February and March, floods killed 650 people and left more
than half a million homeless in Mozambique. Heavy rains also affected
Botswana, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.
- Cyclones Eline (mid-February) and Gloria (early-March) left
184 000 people in need of immediate relief support out of the
total of 737 000 affected in Madagascar. In early April, a third
cyclone, Hudah, hit the north of the island.
- Floods in September and October in Southeast Asia, especially
Viet Nam and Thailand, killed approximately 900 people and left
4 million homeless or with insufficient shelter. Losses estimated
at US$460 million.
- Hurricane Keith in October killed eight and affected 62 000
people in Belize. Direct losses estimated at US$520 million.
- In mid-October, heavy rains caused floods in the Italian and
Swiss Alps killing 38 people and causing economic losses estimated
at US$8.5 billion.
- Similar floods killed six people and caused US$1.5 billion
loss in the United Kingdom in November.
The year 2001
- In mid- to late January, heavy rains over Zambezia Province
caused the Licungo River to flood in Mozambique. Nearly 500 000
people were affected by the floods.
- In March, floods devastated a wide area of northeastern Hungary,
northwestern Romania and western Ukraine. Tens of thousands of
people were forced to move.
- Flash floods unexpectedly struck parts of Pakistan on 23 July.
The cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi were the worst affected.
132 people were killed.
- In mid-November, as many as 576 Vietnamese had been killed by
natural disasters, mainly floods and typhoons. Material losses
amounted to more than US$200 million.
- A persistent multi-year drought in Central and Southwest Asia
had affected about 60 million people by November 2001.
- After several months of drought, devastating floods tore through
the Algerian capital Algiers on 10 November, killing 751 people.
Thousands were injured, and about 40 000 people were left homeless.
Source: ReliefWeb (2002), Munich Re 2001
Among the least developed countries, 24 of the 49 face high levels of
disaster risk; at least six of them have been affected by between two
and eight major disasters per year in the past 15 years, with long-term
consequences for human development (UNDP 2001). Since 1991, more than
half of all the disasters reported occurred in countries with medium levels
of human development (see 'Socio-economic background').
However, two-thirds of those killed came from countries with low levels
of human development, while just 2 per cent came from highly developed
countries. The effect of development on disasters is dramatic: on average,
22.5 people die per reported disaster in highly developed countries, 145
die per disaster in countries with medium human development, and 1 052
people die per disaster in countries with low levels of development (IFRC
A number of experts link the current trend in extreme weather events
with an increase of the global mean temperature. Many parts of the world
have suffered major heat waves, floods, droughts and other extreme weather
events. While individual events, such as El Niņo-related phenomena (see
box below), cannot be directly linked to human-induced climate change,
the frequency and magnitude of these types of events are predicted to
increase in a warmer world. The changes in the global mean temperature
are 'very likely' to affect parameters such as precipitation patterns,
wind velocities, soil moisture and vegetation cover which appear to influence
the occurrence of storms, hurricanes, floods, drought and landslides (IPCC
2001). For example, the extent of damage from storm surges can be directly
linked to sea level variations.
|Socio-economic effects of the 1997-98 El Niņo
The 1997-98 El Niņo event affected virtually every region: Eastern
Africa suffered drought and unusually high rainfall; Southeast Asia
and North America, abnormally warm periods; South Asia, drought;
Latin America and the Caribbean, unusually high rainfall and drought;
and the Pacific Islands unusually high rainfall. The global socioeconomic
impacts were varied:
- More than 24 000 people died because of high winds, floods or
storm tides that occurred during intense storms.
- More than 110 million people were affected and more than 6
million people were displaced as community infrastructures, including
housing, food storage, transport and communications, were lost
- Direct economic losses exceeded US$34 billion.
- Waterlogging of fields reduced agricultural production in many
regions; in others, the absence of storms and rain led to prolonged
dry spells, loss of crops and reduction in water supplies.
- Wildfires were more frequent and widespread during extended
- Increased incidence of disease followed the prolonged disruption
to weather and rainfall patterns that resulted in contamination
of water supplies or a more favourable environment for disease-carrying
Climate change and variability alone do not explain the increase in the
impacts related to disasters. 'Natural' can be a misleading description
for disasters such as the droughts, floods and cyclones which afflict
much of the developing world. Identifying humaninduced root causes, and
advocating structural and political changes to combat them, is long overdue
(IFRC 2001). For example, destruction of the natural environment because
of logging or inappropriate land uses for short-term economic gain is
one of the major factors promoting floods or mudslides such as those that
hit Venezuela in December 1999. Similarly, the migration of population
to urban and coastal areas increases human vulnerability as population
densities increase, infrastructure becomes overloaded, living areas move
closer to potentially dangerous industries, and more settlements are built
in fragile areas such floodplains or areas prone to landslides. As a result,
natural catastrophes affect more people and economic losses are increased.
For example, despite the fact that seismic activity has remained constant
over recent years, the effects of earthquakes on the urban population
appear to be increasing.