IN DECEMBER, 1999, almost 20,000,000 cubic yards of mud, trees, and boulders came barreling down from Venezuela's coastal mountain range onto the densely populated and heavily urbanized ribbon of land that hugs the Caribbean coast, killing around 30,000 people and causing about $2,000,000,000 in damages. Two years worth of rain had fallen in just two days, dislodging soil already saturated by two weeks of heavy La Nina rains. While floods and landslides are common in this area, the devastation unearthed far more than boulders and bare soil. It exposed the perils of development in risky locations as well as inadequate disaster planning and response.
In October, 1998, Hurricane Mitch slammed into Central America, pummeling Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala for more than a week. As the powerful storm hung over the region, it dumped approximately 80 inches of rain. By the time it turned back out to sea, about 10,000 people had died, making it the deadliest hurricane in 200 years. Conservative estimates place its damage to the region at around $8,500,000,000--higher than the combined gross domestic product (GDP) of Honduras and Nicaragua, the two nations hardest hit. The storm set back development in the region by decades.
Venezuela and Central America were not the only regions to experience such devastation in recent years. In fact, the 1990s set a record for disasters worldwide. During the decade, more than $608,000,000,000 in economic losses were chalked up to natural catastrophes, an amount greater than during the previous four decades combined.
In 1998-99, more than 120,000 people were killed and millions were displaced from their homes. In India, 10,000 lost their lives in a 1998 cyclone in Gujarat; the following year, as many as 50,000 died when a "supercyclone" hit Orissa. Vast forest fires raged out of control in Brazil, Indonesia, and Siberia.
Back-to-back earthquakes in El Salvador in January, 2001, erased much of the reconstruction efforts made there in the two years since Hurricane Mitch. That same month, powerful earthquakes struck Gujarat, India, and major floods submerged much of Mozambique for the second year in a row.
Ironically, the United Nations had designated the 1990s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction, hoping to stem the rising toll taken by such events. Instead, the 1990s may go down in history as the International Decade of Disasters, as the world experienced the most costly spate of floods, storms, earthquakes, and fires that it ever had.
Around the planet, a growing share of the devastation triggered by natural disasters stems from ecologically destructive practices and from putting people in harm's way. Many ecosystems have been frayed to the point where they are no longer resilient and able to withstand natural disturbances, setting the stage for "unnatural disasters"--those made more frequent or more severe due to human actions. By degrading forests, engineering rivers, filling in wetlands, and destabilizing the climate, we are unraveling the strands of a complex ecological safety net. We are beginning to understand just how valuable that safety net is.
The enormous expansion of the human population and the built-up environment in the 20th century means that more people and economic activities are vulnerable. The migration of people to cities and coasts increases our vulnerability to the full array of natural hazards. The explosive growth of shanty-towns in the cities of the developing world puts untold numbers of people at risk. These human-exacerbated disasters often take their heaviest toll on those who can least afford it--the poor.
Ecologically, socially, and economically, many regions are now vulnerable and ill-prepared for the onslaught of storms, floods, and other hazards. Hurricane Mitch washed away hillsides, sweeping up homes, farms, roads, bridges, and people in massive mudslides and floods. …