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Chapter Two: The State of the Environment - Global issues

Natural disasters

Natural disasters include earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, fires, floods, hurricanes, tropical storms, cyclones, landslides and other events that cause loss of life and livelihoods. It is estimated that almost 3 million people have perished as a result of natural disasters in the past three decades while tens of millions have suffered hardship (UN 1997).

 Natural disasters, 1993-97

(Click image to enlarge)

Note: not all regions correspond to GEO-2000 region

Source: CRED 1999

Natural disasters occur everywhere but tropical regions are particularly vulnerable

Things appear to be getting worse, in two ways: natural disasters appear to be becoming more frequent and their effects more severe. The Munich Reinsurance Company estimates that total global economic losses from natural disasters for the two years 1997 and 1998 reached US$120 000 million. Allowing for inflation, losses over the decade 1986-95 were eight times higher than in the 1960s (Munich Re 1997 and 1998).

Overall, the poor are the most likely to suffer from major disasters and the least likely to be insured against loss. In 1997, Asia suffered 33 per cent of the world's catastrophic events, 67 per cent of the casualties and 28 per cent of the economic losses. However, only 0.2 per cent of those losses were covered by insurance policies. The global insurance industry paid out US$4 500 million for disaster-related damage in 1997, and 66 per cent of the claims were made in the United States (Munich Re 1998). Thus insured losses and repayments are concentrated mainly in the richer industrialized countries.

While the consequences of most natural disasters are generally confined to one or a few countries or to even smaller areas, some may affect large parts or even the whole of the planet. The debris from very large volcanic eruptions, for example, can spread around the entire globe, and the El Niño phenomenon can have effects many thousands of kilometres away from the region in the Pacific Ocean where it originates.

Global warming models indicate that rising global temperatures are likely to affect many atmospheric parameters including precipitation and wind velocity, and raise the incidence of extreme weather events, including storms and heavy rainfall, cyclones and drought. It may or may not be just coincidence that the Munich Reinsurance Company recorded more than 700 'large loss events' in 1998, compared with between 530 and 600 during previous recent years. The most frequent natural catastrophes were windstorms (240) and floods (170), which accounted for 85 per cent of the total economic losses (Munich Re 1998).

 Major disasters: the past three years

Major disasters over the past three years include:

*  a cyclone in the Indian province of Gujarat in June 1998 killed more than 10 000 people
*  Hurricane George caused damage estimated at US$10 million in the Caribbean in September 1998
*  Hurricane Mitch led to more than 9 000 deaths in Nicaragua and Honduras in October 1998, and caused major setbacks to development plans
*  flooding of the Yangtze river in China between late June and mid-August 1996 affected 20 million people and caused economic losses of more than US$20 000 million
*  looding in Central Europe in 1997 caused economic damage estimated at US$2 900 million in Poland and US$1 800 million in the Czech Republic - in Eisenhüttenstadt the previous flood record of 1854 was exceeded by 62 cm
*  severe floods were also recorded in 1997 in Kenya, Myanmar, Somalia, the United States and along the Pacific coast of Latin America
*  earth tremors caused major destruction in many towns and villages in central Italy in 1997, as did mudslides in 1998
*  in 1997, earthquakes claimed the lives of more than 2 300 people in Iran

Source: Munich Re 1997 and 1998


Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are confined to seismically-active areas and remain stable in incidence. The incidence of other natural disasters such as storms and floods, however, is increasing in frequency and magnitude (Munich Re 1997), and some of these natural phenomena - particularly floods - are being exacerbated or triggered by human degradation of the environment and disturbance of formerly stable ecosystems.

The vulnerability of rural and urban populations to natural disasters is also growing, due to population increase and inadequately planned urbanization. The number and density of people living in cities within earthquake and tropical cyclone zones have risen dramatically in the past two decades. In many developing regions, population pressures and poverty are forcing farmers to cultivate marginal and vulnerable areas in flood plains or on hill slopes. Poor planning decisions have also led to siting potentially-hazardous facilities, such as nuclear power plants, chemical factories and major dams, in earthquake zones and densely-populated areas.

Deforestation can, in the short-term, lead to increased run-off and soil erosion, mudslides and flash flooding. Poor forest management has exacerbated flash floods across the world, such as those witnessed in the Philippines which killed more than 5 000 people in 1991, and the mudslides in southern Italy in 1998.

Urban development, settlement, drainage of wetlands for agriculture, and canalization of rivers for irrigation or navigational purposes have removed the normal flood plains of numerous rivers throughout Asia, Europe and, in particular, the Americas. In the absence of natural absorption basins, rivers rise higher, flow faster and flood more violently. For example, the flooding of the Odra river in Central Europe in the summer of 1997 is estimated to have cost nearly US$6 000 million in economic losses in affected countries, with the most severe damage in Poland which lost 2 000 km of railway line, 3 000 km of roads, 900 bridges and 100 000 houses (Munich Re 1997). The 1996 flooding of the Yangtze River in China killed more than 2 700 people, left two million people homeless, drowned tens of thousands of animals, destroyed crops over some 20 million hectares of farmland, and resulted in a 4-6 per cent loss in GDP. China experienced severe flooding again in 1998.

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