Perilous Times and Climate Change
U.N. and World Bank Report Says Prepare Now for Major Climate Disasters
By NATHANIAL GRONEWOLD of ClimateWire
Published: November 11, 2010
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
"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."
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
"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
"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."