Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Natural Disasters - the Tip of the Iceberg

Thinking of natural disasters triggers some graphic images. Earthquakes in China, cyclones in Burma, tsuanmis in Indonesia - the stuff we see all too regularly on TV. The numbers sometimes seem staggering - 40,000 here, 150,000 over there, another 80,000 somewhere else.

At times it seems like a demented "flavour of the month" club. Whatever gets on the late news wins. That's the disaster that will trigger our consciences and then our politicians' response. Suddenly aircraft will be lined up to fly relief workers and supplies wherever - why wherever we happen to be looking at the moment. But what about all those places we don't see, the people and places that don't win the contest for network coverage?

A study just released by the Brookings Institute reveals that, when it comes to global natural disasters, we only see the tip of the iceberg:

"...every year for the past twenty years, more than 200 million people have been affected by natural disasters, most of which never make it to the nightly news in America. Yet the effects of even localized disasters are felt by affected families for years – long after the TV cameras have moved on to the next disaster.

...groups which were already vulnerable before the disaster tend to suffer disproportionately from the devastation. For example, globally, for every one adult male who drowns in a flood, there are 3-4 women who die. Most obviously, this is because in many countries girls are less likely to learn how to swim or climb trees than boys. Vulnerable groups also experience discrimination in the provision of assistance. In many camps where persons displaced by natural disasters live, food is -- at least initially -- more likely to go to healthy and strong men than to children or the disabled. And in New Orleans, it was the elderly, the immigrants and African-American communities who disproportionately suffered the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

Chances of surviving a natural disaster are much higher in developed countries than in developing ones. For example, in 1988, an earthquake registering 6.9 on the Richter scale hit Armenia, killing some 55,000 people and leaving 500,000 homeless. Less than a year later, in an even stronger earthquake, 7.1 on the Richter scale, hit San Francisco, California, killing 62 and leaving 12,000 homeless.

Climate change affects natural disasters, both sudden-onset environmental events and long-term phenomena such as sea level rises. In fact, the severity and frequency of disasters, particularly what are called hydrometerological disasters (cyclones, hurricanes, flooding, mudslides, drought) are increasing. Natural disasters will be with us for a long time. While we cannot control where an earthquake will strike or a cyclone will turn, we can strengthen our collective ability to respond to these disasters and to mitigate their worst effects. And given the projections of the impact of climate change on natural disasters, we have no time to waste."

Read the full report here:

On the subject of natural disasters, aftershocks that hit China today are reported to have caused the collapse of a staggering 420,000 homes. No estimate yet on the number rendered homeless.


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