It’s time to stop complaining about the weather…(and do something about it)

Mark Keim Blog

The number of disasters is increasing worldwide.

During the past five decades (1964-2013), nearly 20 thousand environmental disasters (not to include epidemics, wars, and conflict-related famines) were reported to have killed 5.4 million people worldwide, affected 7 billion lives and resulted in property damage exceeding 2.7 billion US dollars. Environmental disasters comprised 93% (natural disasters, 53%; and technological disasters, 40%) of the world’s disasters declared during that time as compared to 7% caused by all the world’s biological disasters (pandemics, epidemics and outbreaks).

In general, weather-related disasters are, by far, the most frequent disaster occurrences in the world, comprising 74% of all disasters worldwide during the past 50 years (1964-2013); as well as comprising 97% of all people affected by disasters; and 71% of all damage loses during that same time.

Regardless of where you stand on the political issue of climate change, over the past century, the incidence of weather-related disasters has increased much more rapidly than disasters caused by geological or biological disasters. In recent years, disasters triggered by natural hazards have killed an increasingly large number of people and have become increasingly expensive. In particular, weather-related hazards affect this increasing number of people and cause these increasingly large economic losses.

Over 30 years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) first predicted that these same climate-caused natural hazards would continue to rise in frequency and severity well into the future. This prediction has come true.

During the past 3 decades from 1980 to 2011, there have been 7,009 climate-related disaster declarations worldwide, averaging 226 per year. During the last 12 years, 31% of all disaster deaths were caused by weather-related hazards. This is 5 times the number of people killed by all the world’s epidemics of infectious disease (including such global threats such as HIV, malaria, influenza and now Ebola)!

Between 1990 and 2011, the highest average annual estimated damages occurred in the Americas, followed closely by Asia. During this same time, Europe had the highest proportion of average annual damages attributable to weather-related disasters with the Americas following close behind. The IPCC has also predicted significant negative impacts for coastal communities throughout the world, especially in low-lying areas of Asia and the Pacific. Many of these nations involved also represent emerging markets that are expected to also attract a growing proportion of the world’s capital investments. Forty-four percent of the world’s population lives within 150 km (93 miles) from an ocean coastline. You may therefore expect an increasingly larger number of people affected by weather-related disasters, such as tropical cyclones, floods, sea level rise and failure of marine ecosystems as ocean temperatures continue to rise. All these can be expected to place increasing pressures on human survival in these areas. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact of rapid urbanization and population growth which is being drawn to this relatively small perimeter of land mass.

FOUR GLOBAL TRENDS THAT ARE INCREASING OUR VULNERABILITY TO DISASTERS

Over the past 40 years, there has been a growing body of evidence recognizing that the increasing number of weather-related disasters is not merely due to the increasing incidence of hazards (i.e. storms, floods, droughts, etc.,) But perhaps even more importantly, this increase is due to a rapid global expansion of human vulnerability. There are four global trends that are converging to increase human vulnerability to disasters. These trends are: rapid urbanization, explosive population growth, globalization and the changing face of poverty.

TREND #1 – Urbanization

Much of the more dramatic levels of urbanization are occurring in the developing world where there is increasing competition for critical resources such as safe food, water and shelter.

Tens of thousands of buildings throughout the world’s rapidly growing megacities were erected in a haphazard, uninspected rush as the population soared. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti is but one example of how populations of more than one million people and large districts of poorly constructed housing typical of poverty-stricken cities come together in a deadly union when located on underlying earthquake fault zones. Even moderate shaking in these places could result in the destruction of many buildings. These cities include Mexico City, Cairo, Karachi, Jakarta, Delhi, Tehran, Istanbul, Dhaka and Bangkok, all of which scientists say face a one-in-10 chance of the devastating earthquake in the next decade –largely worsened by construction practices. In the United States large cities, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, St. Louis, Memphis, Seattle, Anchorage and Charleston, all face serious earthquake hazards. In Asia, key cities including
Beijing, Taipei, Tokyo and Manila all face risk of a catastrophic earthquake.

Another trend related to urbanization involves the population of major cities in coastal areas. According to the United Nations, 44% of us live near coastal areas. Coastal cities are usually important ports, which provide access to and from the interior through a major river. In addition, they are hot spots of fisheries providing us with animal protein, and ocean-related recreation, which is rapidly growing. Furthermore, most of the world´s megacities with more than 2.5 million inhabitants are in the coastal area. This rapid increase in the number of people living near the coast this century has created an imbalance that is destroying the very resources that made these places attractive. Many of these cities occur it among emerging markets predicted to comprise a higher proportion of the world’s economic investments during the next century, thus placing worldwide capital investment at risk. One third of coastal regions run a high risk of degradation, especially from infrastructure
development and pollution. In over half of these coastal regions the degradation is increasing. Coastal regions are also prone to weather-related disasters such as tropical cyclones and heavy rainfall resulting in flooding.

Tropical cyclones (also known as hurricanes and typhoons) and floods together have caused 40 % of the world disaster deaths over the past 50 years. According to McKinsey, trusted advisor and counselor for many of the world’s most influential businesses and institutions, contrary to common perception, megacities have not been driving global growth for the past 15 years. In the future, mega-cities are expected to continue to under-perform with the gap between the megacity’s rich and poor expanding more rapidly. Throughout history urban hazards and disasters have included a mix of natural and technological and social events. It is this unbridled growth in urban areas that gives rise to an increasing level of vulnerability that is not only isolated to the poor of these cities but also has a broad and far-reaching social and economic impact. Cities that have overwhelmed and under developed infrastructures on a good day represent extremely fragile public health and medical systems that are easily tipped over the edge by a wide range of disaster hazards such as earthquakes, storms and epidemics.

TREND #2 – Population growth

The global population has grown from 1 billion in 1800 to 7 billion in 2012. It’s expected to keep growing to reach 10 billion by the end of the century. The last 100 years have seen a rapid increase in population due to medical advances and massive increase in agricultural productivity made possible by the Green Revolution. Many of the world’s most populous countries that are now exhibiting the highest population growth rates are also among the world’s most promising business markets. During 1990-2010, countries like Brazil, India, China, Indonesia, and the United States have experienced double-digit growth rates ranging from 17-40%. Other less developed nations such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nigeria, have experienced even greater growth rates ranging from 40%, 50, and 60% respectively.

TREND #3 – Globalization

Trends in globalization are reflecting a more mobile world population capable of traveling across the globe within a single day. Many now share the same language, the same currency, and even the same basic values. But along with the benefits of globalization also come the challenges. Globalization uses up finite resources (such as water and fuel) more quickly. Globalization also tends to transfer jobs and investments from high resource nations to low resource nations. These low resource nations then tend to have less safeguards against disasters. Globalization also tends to increase interdependence among different areas and regions of the world. Thus a disaster that occurs in one world region, also has the likelihood to affect other parts of the world as well. For example, the 2011 floods in Bangkok Thailand disrupted the global lithium battery market affecting smart phone manufacturing throughout the world. In 2010, the Japan tsunami disrupted worldwide automobile manufacturing supply chains. In addition to increasing this inter-dependency, globalization along with improved transportation infrastructure has also facilitated an increasingly larger class of world travel. This global transportation network makes it much easier for emerging and reemerging diseases to spread from what were once remote village locations and rural areas to large cities and metropolitan areas throughout the world. This increases the likelihood of world pandemics such as influenza. It also makes it more likely for what were previously rare diseases such as Ebola, and SARS to quickly spread across national borders affecting both high-resource and low-resource nations alike.

TREND #4 – The changing face of poverty

The world’s poor, especially in emerging nations, are disproportionately affected, and the most vulnerable and marginalized people in those nations bear the brunt of most disasters. Human vulnerability to climate-related hazards is also increasing because of rising poverty, a growing
global population, and other underlying development issues. As stated, the burden of natural disasters falls disproportionately on the disenfranchised—the poor, the ethnic minorities, the aged, and those with disabilities. Worldwide, loss of life from climate-related disasters is far higher among the less-developed nations than in developed nations. Yet within each nation, including developed nations, the poor are most affected According to one statement by the United Nations, “The poorest people in the poorest countries are the most vulnerable—and it is vulnerability that kills.” Poverty is an important determinant of disaster risk—and hence of socio-economic vulnerability. Poverty is both a condition and determinant of vulnerability to incur adverse health impact from disasters. Those most vulnerable tend to be particular social groups, such as those with inadequate access to economic (e.g., credit, welfare) and social capital (e.g., networks, information and relationships). These groups are most vulnerable to the public health impacts of natural disasters. Efforts to decrease human vulnerability must therefore give priority to these high-risk. Recognizing that poverty is a significant risk factor for vulnerability to disasters, we must now consider the changing face of poverty worldwide. There is a trend of increasing poverty in the low and middle income countries that are considered fragile states (bordering on failure of the nation to meet its population’s needs). This trend reveals a global tendency towards higher degrees of poverty in nations with lower thresholds of catastrophic failure and that are likely to incur disaster.

But this trend of increasing poverty and disaster vulnerability is not limited to low and middle income countries. This upward trend of poverty is also long-standing in the United States Over the past 40 years the percentage of the US population living below the 50% of poverty level (in other words the poorest of the nation’s poor) has grown steadily by 50%! Most notable is the even more remarkable increase in the percentage of American children living in poverty during this time. Both poverty and childhood make subsequent victims more likely to die in a disaster as compared to other more affluent or adult counterparts. Other populations in the US also known to be vulnerable in disasters (such as those of minority ethnicities, families with children or families with single mother had of households) have all increased over the past 13 years. All of these trends of poverty contribute significantly to a growing vulnerability to disasters both in the United States as well as throughout the world.

 

This outdated hazard-focused approach (as opposed to vulnerability-focused view) has produced policies for reducing the risk of weather-related disasters that resemble war strategy. The implication is that risk reduction should be handled by military or civil protection institutions, relying on rigid chains of command and treating climate hazards as enemies to fight against, because people need “protection.” However as disaster risk expert, Ben Wisner points out, “Despite stark evidence that harm from extreme events is foreshadowed in daily life, the dominant paradigm still ignores these underlying societal risk factors.” Investments so far do not prioritize communities’ strengths and capacities nor deal with the root causes of vulnerability—lack of access to resources, lack of political voice and visibility, poor government outreach, and failure to provide critical infrastructure. One recent study by the World Bank has drawn attention to this misconception about disasters. This report entitled, “Natural Hazards, UnNatural Disasters” has carefully chosen the adjective “UnNatural” in the title to convey its key message that, “earthquakes, droughts, floods, and storms are natural hazards, but the unnatural disasters are deaths and damages that result from human acts of omission and commission. Every disaster is unique, but each exposes actions—by individuals and governments at different levels—that, had they been different, would have resulted in fewer deaths and less damage.” Prevention is possible, and this report examines what it takes to do this cost-effectively. So, isn’t it time that we stop complaining about the weather and start doing something about it?

As the American novelist Amelia Barr has so aptly stated,

“It is only in sorrow that bad weather masters us;

in joy we face the storm and defy it.”

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