NATIONS

U.N. and World Bank report says act now or pay much more later for climate disasters

UNITED NATIONS -- Annual monetary losses for natural disasters are expected to rise to $185 billion worldwide by the end of the century, even without factoring in the anticipated negative impacts of climate change, a new joint U.N. and World Bank study concludes.

With climate change included, the global annual losses could increase by anywhere from $28 billion to $68 billion. But governments can drastically reduce these losses and rising mortality rates by implementing preventive systems and infrastructure changes that are much cheaper and simpler than the post-disaster cleanup that has been drawing so much public funds recently.

That's the message the report's authors are hoping to get out to policymakers in a year characterized by some of the largest natural disasters in recorded history. From the city-sized death toll stemming from Haiti's January earthquake to the 20 million people hit from mass flooding in Pakistan over the summer, the primary lesson being transmitted by 70 experts researching natural disasters over the past year is that disasters are largely caused by a series of man-made mistakes that build up over time. They lead to massive failures when a natural triggering event occurs.

Climate change throws more uncertainty into the equation, but proper planning and prevention will likewise reduce the added losses that shifting climates and extreme weather are feared to bring, the organizations conclude.

"A disaster exposes the cumulative implications of many earlier decisions, some taken individually, others collectively, and a few by default," authors say in the new study, "Natural Hazards, UnNatural Disasters: The Economics of Effective Prevention." "A deeper questioning of what happened, and why, could prevent a repetition of disasters. Several factors usually contribute to any disaster, some less obvious than others."

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A poverty of preparedness

For Haiti, the "earlier decisions" involved the millions of residents choosing to build crowded and substandard housing on an active geologic fault, with no government to stop them. Poverty primarily led to these decisions' being made, but slight investments in a proper government titling and land tenure system, with earthquake-zone building codes, would have almost certainly prevented the bulk of the 230,000 to 260,000 deaths that occurred there last January.

Likewise, the flood disaster in Pakistan was exacerbated by poorly built bridges, a lack of maintenance on flood control systems, and poor or nonexistent urban planning. Deforestation in the north also contributed to a degree, a factor noted in the U.N.-World Bank report as it mentions Haiti's vulnerabilities in comparison to those of the neighboring Dominican Republic.

All told, the United Nations and World Bank estimate that more than 3.3 million people have lost their lives in natural disasters since 1970, about 82,500 per year. This counts deaths from such sudden catastrophes as hurricanes, earthquakes, tidal waves and mudslides, but also from the slow-motion disasters caused by flooding and droughts -- researchers count 1 million dead in Africa from famine-induced droughts over the past 40 years.

Though harder to calculate, financial losses from property damage are put at $2.3 trillion in total between 1970 and 2008. Financial losses are usually higher in middle-income countries, but the poorest countries experience the greater number of deaths.

The United Nations and World Bank's findings also highlight the stark contrast in aid spending on humanitarian disaster relief versus prevention. From 2000 to 2008, the agencies believe, rich governments devoted 20 percent of all aid spending to disaster relief work. By contrast, donor agencies spent just 0.1 percent of the global aid budget to natural disaster prevention in 2001, increasing to 0.7 percent by 2008 and not counting normal development spending that may make countries less vulnerable to disasters.

Expanding cities drive up the pain and the losses

Researchers say expanding cities will increase damages and loss of life in the future if developing-nation governments continue with the status quo.

"Large cities exposed to cyclones and earthquakes will more than double their population by 2050," from about 680 million globally today to more than 1.5 billion, the report notes. "Vulnerability need not increase with exposure if cities are well managed, but the projected increase in exposure underscores the enormous task ahead."

U.N. and World Bank officials recommend some simple measures to reduce risks to exposed populations. In the report, they cite the example of Bangladesh, where officials dramatically reduced loss of life and property from cyclones by spending relatively modest amounts of public funds on storm shelters, a weather forecasting and early warning system, and organizing evacuation plans.

"All this cost less than building large-scale embankments that would have been less effective," they say. Spending on accurate weather forecasting and early warning systems can also have a dramatic effect on reducing the losses sustained from storms in poor nations every year, the research team concluded.

The research team found other factors that tend to correlate with better disaster preparedness.

Regular elections tended to reduce earthquake losses, as political actors paid more attention to their constituents' needs. And less government interference in the housing sector, especially the lack of rent controls, ensured that housing was built better and maintained better. Also, investment in adequate public transportation systems seems to encourage the poor to be willing to live farther from work and not in crowded slums or on marginal land exposed to storms, floods or mudslides.

"This report presents necessary evidence and a compelling case for our client countries to reduce their vulnerability to natural hazards so that they can develop in sustainable and cost-effective way," said World Bank president Robert Zoellick in a release. Zoellick added that the bank is "ready to scale up efforts to assist disaster-prone developing countries in addressing this threat to the safety and livelihoods of poor people."

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