U.N. Study Finds Death Tolls Up in Natural Disasters

Article excerpt

Natural disasters are more than twice as likely to inflict a heavy death toll now as they were 30 years ago, a U.N. study suggests.

The major reason is the exploding world population and the increasing tendency of people to settle in disaster-prone places, such as flood plains. But environmental degradation also may play a role, U.N. officials said.

It's also possible that the increase has been exaggerated by improvements in global communications - that recent disasters have simply been better covered.

The author of the study, Charles Kerpelman, conceded that might be the case. Still, he said this month, "You can't avoid the conclusion that the number of serious disasters is increasing."

North America bucked the global trend, with a sharp decrease in deadly disasters and a very slight increase in disasters causing substantial property damage, Kerpelman said.

He is a consultant in Geneva who formerly worked for the U.N. Disaster Relief Organization there. He said he was surprised by the conclusions he reached after crunching disaster statistics in his computer. "It's an enormous problem that has to be dealt with."

Kerpelman said he relied primarily on statistics compiled by the U.S. Agency for International Development. He analyzed disasters in four-year blocks between 1963 and 1992.

Between 1963 and 1967, he found 89 disasters that caused 100 or more deaths each; between 1988 and 1992, there were 205 such disasters, an increase of 130 percent.

By two other measures, the increase in disasters was even greater. The number of disasters causing significant property damage rose by more than 300 percent. …