Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Was 2005 the year of natural disasters?

Why do natural disasters seem to be increasingly frequent and increasingly deadly? Poor and vulnerable people are usually the worst hit.

The Asian earthquake on 8 October killed 73 000 people. Three million were left homeless.
WHO/C. Black
The Asian earthquake on 8 October killed 73 000 people and seriously injured 70 000 more.

Tsunamis, hurricanes and typhoons, earthquakes, locusts and now the threat of a flu pandemic. Will 2005 be remembered as the year of natural disasters?

The year 2005 saw the aftermath of the 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami waves in Asia, hurricanes in central and north America, notably Katrina, which triggered flooding in the US city of New Orleans, and the 8 October earthquake in Pakistan and India. The year also saw famine after crops were destroyed by locusts in Niger.

Virtually unnoticed by the outside world was tiny El Salvador where the country’s highest volcano, Ilamatepec, erupted on 1 October, displacing more than 7500 people and killing two. A few days later Hurricane Stan swept through and killed about 70 people with floods and mudslides.

From January to October 2005, an estimated 97 490 people were killed in disasters globally and 88 117 of them in natural disasters, according to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), a WHO Collaborating Centre that operates a global disaster database in Belgium. According to CRED, the number of natural disasters — floods, windstorms, droughts and geological disasters — recorded since 1900 have increased and the number of people affected by such disasters has also increased since 1975.

Is this as bad as it gets, or could it get worse? Why do natural disasters appear to be increasingly frequent and increasingly deadly?

Today’s disasters stem from a complex mix of factors, including routine climate change, global warming influenced by human behaviour, socioeconomic factors causing poorer people to live in risky areas, and inadequate disaster preparedness and education on the part of governments as well as the general population.

Some disasters experts reject the term “natural disasters, arguing that there is almost always a man-made element.

“I don’t like to use the term ‘natural disasters’,” said Dr Ciro Ugarte, Regional Advisor for Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) in Washington DC, explaining that natural disasters would not have such a devastating effect on people’s lives if they were not exposed to such risks in the first place.

Natural phenomena do not always generate human disasters. Ugarte noted that in 2005, several earthquakes that struck in South America were of a higher magnitude than the one that devastated northern Pakistan and parts of India in October, but these hit sparsely populated areas and therefore caused less damage. The same goes for several tsunamis in 2005 which were not deemed “disasters” because they didn’t endanger anyone, Ugarte said.

Natural phenomena are likely to affect more people because Earth’s population has increased. According to the United Nations Population Fund, this stands at about 6.5 billion people and is projected to reach 9.1 billion people in 2050.

Marko Kokic, spokesperson for WHO’s Health Action in Crisis department, said that some communities are more vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters than 100 years ago because of ecological degradation. He said that, for example, when tropical storms hit the Caribbean in September 2004, there was nothing to stop storm waters gathering and wreaking devastation in Haiti because of deforestation.

“We need to tackle the underlying issues, such as poverty and inequity,” Kokic said, adding: “In many countries, people cut down trees because wood is the cheapest fuel”.

Disasters are also a consequence of development and industrialization. In Europe, experts believe that countries such as France and Germany are more adversely affected by floods today because major rivers, such as the Rhine, have been straightened to ease commercial traffic.

Global warming as well as routine, cyclical climate changes are causing a higher number of strong hurricanes in the Caribbean, meteorologists say. Add to that the increasing number of people living in areas such as coastlines, in substandard housing and the destruction in a crisis of essential infrastructure, such as hospitals, and you have the potential for more devastating disasters than a few decades ago.

There have always been disasters. The bubonic plague wiped out more than 25 million people, or 37% of Europe’s population, in the 1300s. More recently, the 1918–19 flu pandemic killed between 20 and 40 million people worldwide. One of the earliest recorded disasters, the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, buried the ancient Roman city of Pompeii killing about 10 000 people. Today, two million people live within its possible range, illustrating one major difference between then and now.

About 75 disasters were reported globally in 1975, according to CRED. In 2000 the figure peaked at 525 and dropped to just under 400 in 2004. By far the highest number of fatalities — about 450 000 — occurred in 1984. In 2004 nearly 300 000 died in disasters, but the number of people affected has soared since 1975 with about 600 million people affected by disasters of all kinds in 2002.

So complex and intertwined are the factors behind these disasters that some experts believe the most practical approach to preparedness may be to focus on reducing the risks rather than factors behind the risks.

Dave Paul Zervaas, regional coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the United Nations’ International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), argued that preparation should focus on making people less vulnerable to disasters.

“We think it’s much more important now to look at vulnerabilities, because you have factors you can control,” Zervaas said. “You can work to lower vulnerability [to disasters].”

Hurricane Katrina in the United States is a good example, Zervaas said. A number of factors contributed to the damage and loss of life. The storm was huge. It struck a city whose levees had not been maintained or strengthened for years, and government agencies’ response to the emergency was at first inadequate.

In Central America storms such as hurricanes Mitch and Stan have wrought damage with rain and landslides rather than wind. “The poverty issue and the social inequity situation have not become much better in most places,” said Zervaas, adding that migration to cities conspires with a lack of urban planning to put people in danger.

Clearly, climate change — whether helped by human behaviour or not — is playing a role. Hurricane experts say the world is in the midst of a routine, cyclical climate change that causes the Caribbean to heat up, increasing the frequency of powerful storms. The effect of this is greater than that of global warming, according to Stanley Goldenberg, a meteorologist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Miami.

While earthquakes represent some of the most devastating disasters in recent years, these are diminishing in strength compared with earlier times, Ugarte said. Nowadays an earthquake with a magnitude of 8, 9 or 10 on the Richter scale is rare, the one in south Asia in October 2005 was 7.6, Ugarte said, adding: “But yes, we are seeing a lot of damage. You will probably find more damage in the future for phenomena that are less in magnitude than in previous years.”

Experts agree that the poor are disproportionately hit. “In several of these countries, the poor people are looking for spaces to build their houses or their communities [and] they find spaces that are not already used,” Ugarte said. “And those spaces that are not already used are usually the spaces at higher risk for natural phenomena. There’s a huge relationship between this kind of damage and poverty.”

For this reason financial services play a role in both prevention, and damage limitation and recovery. A report entitled, Climate change futures: health ecological and economic dimensions, published in November 2005 assesses the risks generated by climate change. One of several scenarios “would involve blows to the world economy sufficiently severe to cripple the resilience that enables affluent countries to respond to catastrophes,” according to the report, which was published by the Center for Health and Global Environment at the Harvard Medical School and sponsored by reinsurance company Swiss Re and the United Nations Development Programme. While it is important to encourage people, governments and companies to buy insurance, not everyone can afford it or see the need.

Microfinancing is another avenue, giving poor people the means to improve their economic situation so that a disaster does not hit them as hard as it would otherwise, and also by lending them money to use in recovering from it.

Many countries are working to improve their disaster preparedness, but more needs to be done, Ugarte said.

“Countries are now better prepared in comparison to 1970,” he said. “But now the level of preparation and risk reduction that you need is huge in comparison to that year.”

The Michoacan earthquake in Mexico in 1985 showed that being well prepared was not enough because hospitals in the disaster zone were destroyed. Likewise, in Grenada Hurricane Ivan damaged and disrupted much of the Caribbean island’s health system, making it difficult for health workers to respond to the needs generated by the hurricane.

PAHO has expanded its programmes to focus not only on preparedness but also on mitigation. This involves reducing secondary deaths and destruction that can occur in the aftermath of a disaster, and implementing building codes that require hospitals, schools, military bases other vital structures to be built to withstand such disasters.

Many countries say they can’t afford more preparation, but some measures are simple and can be inexpensive, such as a tsunami warning system, Ugarte said. “But from there to Banda Aceh, that is another step,” Ugarte said, referring to the capital of the Indonesian province that was worst hit by the earthquake and tsunami of December 2004. “And from Banda Aceh to all the little communities on the coast, that’s another issue. That last link of the chain is not in place. And that is the system that we need to build.”

Disaster experts say early warning systems and education are essential to prevent and mitigate against the effects of natural disasters. In its World disasters report 2005, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies notes that a simple phone call saved thousands of lives when the giant tsunami waves hit India in 2004. A fisherman’s son named Vijayakumar Gunasekaran, who lives in Singapore, heard about the tsunami early on the radio and phoned relatives living on the east coast of India. Following his warning, all 3630 residents evacuated their village there before the waves arrived.

Theresa Braine, Mexico City.

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“We think it’s much more important now to look at vulnerabilities, because you have factors you can control. You can work to lower vulnerability [to disasters].”
Dave Paul Zervaas, regional coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the United Nations’ International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR).

“There’s a huge relationship between this kind of damage and poverty.”
Dr Ciro Ugarte, Regional Advisor for Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief with the Pan American Health Organization.