Are we having more natural disasters?
Tuesday October 11, 2005
It does seem so. In the past 10 months we have had the Indian Ocean tsunami, hurricanes Katrina and Stan in the US and central America, massive floods in India and China and now the Pakistan earthquake. Watch television a lot, and you would think that the world is lurching from one disaster to another.
Last year, says the International Red Cross, saw 128 major floods, 121 hurricanes and cyclones and 42 earthquakes and tsunamis. Add major avalanches, forest fires and locust plagues and there were a grand total of 360 official natural disasters in 2004. This was far more than than the 239 recorded in 1995, but fewer than the 424 of 2002, the 431 of 2000 and the 395 in 2001.
What is happening, says the Red Cross, is that more people are being killed and affected by disasters. Last week it said 901,177 had died in natural disasters from 1995 to 2004, compared with 643,418 in the previous decade. Count the "adversely affected" and you find that 2.54 billion people - almost half the people alive - have been through one disaster or another in the past decade, compared with 1.7 billion in the previous 10 years. Worldwide, the Red Cross reckons that the number of people affected by disaster has climbed 46% in a decade.
Might there be fewer natural disasters which are being reported more? Up to a point. The Indian Ocean tsunami killed 224,495 people on Boxing Day 2004 - but in disaster terms it was smaller than the barely reported famine in North Korea, which killed 270,000 people from 1995 to 1999. Equally, the Chinese and Bangladeshi floods affected more than 130 million but were barely mentioned on western television.
At least one myth can now be scotched. Africa, popularly believed to be the most disaster-prone continent, is actually one of the safest, recording 48,000 disaster deaths from 1995 to 2004. In that time, 64,000 died in rich Europe and a terrible 702,000 in Asia. But no one can tell whether that's because droughts are so common in Africa, and deaths from malnutrition so inexactly reported, that the world has stopped looking.