Unnatural Disasters

Article excerpt

The severity of natural disasters set a new record in 1998, causing more than $92 billion in damages worldwide. Can we afford to write these disasters off as "acts of God," or is there a human culpability involved?

In late October 1998, Hurricane Mitch slammed into Central America, pummeling Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala for more than a week. As the slow-moving but powerful storm hung over the region, it dumped as much as a meter of rain. By the time it turned back out to sea, Hurricane Mitch had caused around 10,000 deaths, making it the deadliest Atlantic storm in 200 years.

But Central America was not the only region to experience such devastation last year. In fact, 1998 set a new record for disasters worldwide; damage from weather-related disasters reached a record high of more than $92 million. Thousands of people were killed, and millions were displaced from their homes. In January, an ice storm in Canada and New England caused $2.5 billion in damages, bringing down thousands of miles of power lines and nearly wiping out the region's sugar maple industry. In June, 10,000 people were killed by a cyclone in Gujarat, India. Vast forest fires raged out of control over 52,000 square kilometers in Brazil, 20,000 square kilometers in Indonesia, and 13,000 square kilometers of Siberia. Turkey, Argentina, and Paraguay experienced massive flooding. Storms, droughts, fires, and floods plagued almost every region in the world.

Ironically, the United Nations had designated the 1990s as the "International Decade for Natural Disaster Prevention," hoping to stem the rising toll taken by natural disasters worldwide. Instead, the past ten years may be known as the International Decade of Disasters, as the world experienced its most costly spate of storms, floods, and fires in history. The stage had been set for extreme devastation long before the 1998 disasters: ecologically and socially, many regions were vulnerable and ill-prepared for the onslaught of storms, floods, and other calamities. Central America, for instance, has some of the highest rates of deforestation in the world - each year the region loses between 2 to 4 percent of its remaining forest cover (Honduras alone has already cleared half of its forested land). Absent much of the protective forest cover needed to stabilize this mountainous region, Hurricane Mitch washed away denuded hillsides, sweeping up homes, farms, roads, bridges, and people in massive mudslides and floods. Other pressures - poverty, population growth, and inequitable land rights - had forced more and more people into vulnerable areas such as steep hillsides and unprotected riverbanks.

That the worst devastation occurs in vulnerable places that are environmentally overstressed and economically impoverished is no coincidence. Indeed, a growing share of the devastation caused by "natural" disasters is now unnatural - stemming from ecologically destructive practices. And these human-exacerbated disasters often take their heaviest toll on those who can least afford it - the poor.

At the Hand of God or Man?

Storms, floods, droughts, and fires in 1998 caused a staggering 32,000 deaths worldwide. In that year another 300 million people - more than the population of the United States - were displaced from their homes or forced to resettle because of extreme weather events. According to figures complied by Worldwatch and the Munich Reinsurance Company, the costs of weather-related disasters in 1998 reached a record high of more than $92 billion - a 50 percent increase over the previous record of $61 billion in 1996. Disaster losses in 1998 alone far exceed the $78 billion in losses for the entire decade of the 1980s [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]. Munich Re estimated in its 1998 year-end report that the number of natural catastrophes has tripled since the 1960s, increasing the overall cost to the world's economies nine-fold.

Floods, storms, and other events are certainly not new phenomena. …