World faces mounting damage from disasters

Climate change and poor planning are worsening the toll in lives and money that natural disasters wreak worldwide.

Tornado, Oklahoma
Natural disasters such as tornadoes and hurricanes caused more than $100bn in losses last year [Reuters]

Geneva, Switzerland – Just 11 days after being slammed by a massive tornado, the US state of Oklahoma has again been hit by deadly storms. Oklahoma City was the latest to feel nature’s wrath when tornados struck on Friday, killing nine people and injuring more than 100. 

Natural disasters are increasing around the world as the climate changes, costing lives and billions of dollars in damage, and governments need to act to minimise the effects, a conference on natural calamity mitigation heard last month.  

Underscoring the issue was the tornado that destroyed much of the city of Moore, Oklahoma on May 20 – killing 24, injuring hundreds, and causing about $2bn in damage.

Survivors of the Moore, Oklahoma tornado [AFP]

Details on the disaster were still coming in as the United Nations-led Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction conference opened in Geneva, Switzerland.

The news brought words of sympathy from around the world, and highlighted the importance of the conference’s task: to deal with the ballooning impacts of natural disasters around the world.

The global disaster conference brought together more than 3,500 delegates from 171 countries to discuss reducing the risk of natural disasters in the years ahead.

Parliamentarians, mayors and community leaders met with scientists, NGOs, international agencies and businesses to give input and to question why recent attempts to manage disaster risks haven’t slowed the rising tide of destruction.

The UN has estimated the direct economic cost of disasters since 2000 is roughly $1.4tn, cautioning that the total price tag on people’s livelihoods and the wider economy are never fully counted.

“There’s now rather convincing evidence that climate change has brought about, if not more frequent, at least more vehement expressions from nature, and that we should be prepared for this,” UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson said at the conference.

Burgeoning costs

Japan’s earthquake and tsunami of 2011 was probably the most costly natural disaster in history, causing losses of hundreds of billions of dollars.

Last October’s Superstorm Sandy cost the United States more than $50bn, while also devastating Cuba, Haiti, and other Caribbean nations. Record wildfires last year in Russia and the US burned through millions of acres, following another unprecedented Russian summer in 2010 when heat waves claimed 55,000 lives.

 Deadly tornado tears through Oklahoma 


As the thermometer rises, so does the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported last year that droughts and heat waves are growing harsher and longer in many regions, causing deaths, fires and crop failure.

When rain does come, it is often more intense, causing flooding and landslides. Meanwhile, rising sea levels increase the height and damage potential of storm surges in coastal areas.

The price tag of disasters is also boosted by the amount of development in high-risk areas, especially in fast-growing economies where there is little land-use planning.

The ways in which booming economies can court disaster was demonstrated in 2011, when the Chao Phraya River flooded in Thailand, inundating more than 1,000 factories built in the floodplain.

The resulting disruption of electronic component manufacturers rippled through global supply chains. In Japan and North America, Toyota and Honda had to slow down automobile production and lost more than $1bn each. Meanwhile, the prices of computer hard drives tripled in some parts of the world.

Progress on paper

In 2005, the Hyogo Framework for Action was adopted to encourage countries to become more resilient in the face of natural disasters. But the Global Assessment Report released at the conference reveals that efforts have had limited success so far.

One-hundred twenty-one countries have passed legislation for reducing disaster risks since 2005, and more than half of the governments have made substantial progress in assessing and monitoring the risks their people face. But this has had no discernible affect on disaster losses, which continue to stack up around the world.

Each of the last three years has brought direct economic losses of more than $100bn because of earthquakes, storms, floods, droughts, and other catastrophes. These range from mega-disasters such as the Japan earthquake and tsunami and Superstorm Sandy, down to smaller floods and landslides that strike vulnerable communities, somewhere in the world, on a daily basis.

“National risk reduction plans are mostly on paper,” said Terezya Huvisa, Tanzania’s minister for the environment. “There is a huge gap in implementation, and an immense gap between local needs and national plans.”

It’s these gaps between plans and protection that brought a record number of stakeholders to Geneva to demand more concrete action from a new plan to succeed the Hyogo Framework. The document will be drafted between now and 2015, and the UN is ensuring that early input comes from every corner.

With attendees ranging from scientists to engineers, and from indigenous community leaders to CEOs, not everyone shared the same priorities.

But United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction chief Margareta Wahlstrom said the conference was a step forward.

“When we set out to try to identify what is the common ground for 2015 and beyond, I believe in this conference we have lived up to that assignment,” said Wahlstrom.

National risk reduction plans are mostly on paper. There is a huge gap in implementation.

by - Terezya Huvisa, Tanzania's Minister for the Environment

So far, each step towards a global framework for addressing disasters has been framed by massive natural events. The Hyogo Framework was established in Kobe, Japan, as bodies were still being recovered from the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.

The recent disasters casting shadows on this year’s event brought greater attention to the likelihood that climate change is worsening the intensity of weather events.

The Global Assessment Report highlighted that many people suffering the worst effects of climate disasters are not the ones contributing to them.

Other than climate change, reckless urban development, the exploitation of groundwater, and deforestation are increasing the likelihood of disasters large and small, and weaken the resilience of communities to withstand them.

“From this perspective, disaster risk is a shared risk, and businesses, the public sector and civil society all participate in its construction,” the report concluded.

Source: Al Jazeera