WASHINGTON - The 1990s will go down as the decade of
calamities despite being declared the ''International Decade for
Natural Disaster Reduction'' by the United Nations, says a report
released here Thursday.
The decade saw 86 major natural catastrophes - including floods,
earthquakes and hurricanes - that required outside assistance
because of extensive deaths, said the Washington-based Worldwatch
Institute. By contrast, there were only 20 such events in the
1950s and 47 in the 1970s.
Natural disasters caused more than 608 billion dollars in economic
losses during the 1990s - about five times the figure in the 1970s
and 15 times the total for the 1950s, said the environmental think-
Why the increase? Janet Abramovitz, a senior researcher at
Worldwatch who authored the 62-page report, argued part of the
reason is that a growing share of the devastation wrought by
natural disasters, like floods and hurricanes, is ''unnatural'' in
origin, caused by destruction to ecosystems.
''We have altered so many natural systems so dramatically, their
ability to protect us from disturbances is greatly diminished,''
The clear-cutting of forests, re-routing of rivers, filling in of
wetlands, and destabilization of the global climate is leading to
the unraveling of a complex ecological safety net, warned the
report, 'Unnatural Disasters.'
Asia has been hardest hit by natural disasters, it said, because
the region is large and storms, floods and earthquakes frequently
hit heavily populated coastal areas.
According to data collected by Munich Re, a German-based
international reinsurance company, 77 percent of the nearly
561,000 people who died in natural disasters between 1985 and 1999
were in Asia. Approximately 45 percent of all recorded economic
losses during the same period, which includes the first two years
of the 'Asian financial crisis', were attributed to natural
Some of the more devastating recent natural disasters have been in
India. In 1998, a cyclone in the state of Gujarat claimed the
lives of 10,000 people, while the following year as many as 50,000
people died when a ''supercyclone'' hit Orissa state.
Munich Re reported that 10 percent of the fatalities between 1985
and 1999 were in South America, while four percent were in Central
America and four percent in Africa. Less than four percent of the
fatalities were in industrial countries, including European
nations and the United States.
''While poor countries are more vulnerable, in every nation some
people and communities - notably the very poor, women and ethnic
minorities - are especially hard hit during and after disasters,''
The good news is that single natural disasters are causing fewer
deaths than in earlier decades. ''It was not uncommon,'' said
Abramovitz, ''to lose hundreds of thousands of lives in a single
Early warnings and disaster preparedness, along with advances in
sanitation and clean water, have helped keep the fatalities lower
than in the past, she added.
While the death toll per event has declined in recent decades,
however, the number of people impacted has grown, according to the
report. More people worldwide, it said, are now displaced by
natural disasters than by conflict.
''In the last decade over two billion people worldwide have been
affected by disasters, about 211 million people per year,'' said
the report, which acknowledged that some of these people may be
affected and counted more than once. Ninety percent of people
impacted were in Asia and six percent in Africa.
The ever-rising human and economic toll of disasters means that a
profound shift is needed in how disasters are approached, said the
report. Most attempts to address natural disasters, it argued,
wrongly focus on disaster response and recovery or on scientific
and technical solutions.
Instead, it urged governments and international institutions to
reexamine development choices that have made the threats worse.
''While we cannot do away with natural hazards, we can eliminate
those that we cause, minimize those we exacerbate, and reduce our
vulnerability to most,'' said Worldwatch.
Current development trends that make people vulnerable to natural
disasters - pressure on ecosystems and concentration of people and
infrastructure along coasts and in cities - are growing, it added.
''Many ecosystems have been frayed to the point where they are no
longer resilient and able to withstand natural disturbances,
setting the stage for ''unnatural disasters'' - those made more
frequent or more severe due to human actions,'' it said.
Deforestation, for example, impairs watersheds, raises the risk of
fires, and contributes to climate change, it said. Destruction of
coastal wetlands, dunes, and mangroves eliminates ''nature's shock
absorbers'' for coastal storms.
''Such human-made changes end up making naturally vulnerable areas -
such as hillsides, rivers, coastal zones, and low-lying islands -
even more vulnerable to extreme weather events,'' the report said.
Critical to redirecting disaster mitigation strategies,
governments and donors need to focus more on maintaining and
restoring healthy ecosystems, it argued. Much can be learned from
China, which now recognizes that forests are more valuable for
flood control and water supply than for timber.
In response to deadly floods in 1998, China banned logging in the
upper Yangtze watershed, prohibited additional land reclamation
projects in the river's floodplain, and stepped up efforts to
reforest the watershed.
Mangrove restoration efforts in Vietnam also are under way to help
prevent storm damage to the coast. The 2,000 hectares of mangroves
successfully acted as a buffer against frequent coastal storms,
said the report.
When the area was hit by the worst typhoon in a decade, there was
no significant damage, it noted.
''If we instead choose to work with nature and each other, we can
reduce the waves of unnatural disasters that have been washing
over the shores of humanity with increasing regularity and
ferocity,'' said Abramovitz.
Copyright 2001 IPS - Inter Press Service