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Today's disaster death tolls are falling - U.N. report

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 24 May 2011 06:12 PM
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BANGKOK (AlertNet) – From the flood-ravaged provinces of Pakistan and tsunami battered shorelines of Japan to the storms, floods, landslides and quakes that struck Australia, New Zealand and Spain, disasters have hogged the headlines in the past 18 months.

Yet there is a sliver of good news – the risk of being killed by a cyclone or flood is lower today than it was 20 years ago, despite more people living on floodplains and storm-prone areas, according to the second United Nations (U.N.) report on reducing the risks of disasters, launched on Monday. 

This trend, especially true for East Asia and the Pacific where risk is concentrated, is due to countries’ improved capacity in disaster response, preparedness and early warning systems, said the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2011, produced by the U.N.’s disaster management agency UNISDR.

“When the Pakistan floods happened last year, we ran a global risk model which is very, very solid, with parameters of the flooding and asked how many people the model would predict to be killed,” Andrew Maskrey, the report’s lead author, told AlertNet.

 “The model predicted around 4 times more people killed than were reported killed,” he said of the 2010 floods – the worst in Pakistan’s recorded history – that killed more than 1,750 people.

“These kinds of floods 20 years ago may have killed 15,000 or 20,000 people,” he said.

In contrast to the general decline in mortality risk, “the value of lost assets is increasing exponentially,” Maskrey said of disaster impacts, adding the combination of climate change and bad development means countries are experiencing an unprecedented level of economic loss.

Since 1980, the risk of economic losses from tropical cyclones and floods has quadrupled in OECD countries – 34 developed nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – while it has almost tripled in sub-Saharan Africa and is more than two-and-a-half times greater in other regions.

The report added that governments have stuck to failed land management policies that have led to slums and informal settlements in many developing countries at risk of disasters, the report said.

The report also singled out drought as an important but largely misunderstood disaster that can have devastating impacts both in rural and urban settings.

DROUGHT – THE HIDDEN RISK

Droughts worldwide have killed more than 11 million people since 1900 and affected over 2 billion, more than any other single hazard, the report said. 

Droughts also lead to large-scale migration, conflict and political unrest, and hit rural livelihoods, yet there are no credible models to determine the risks, and drought losses and impacts are not systematically recorded, it added.

Despite popular perception, erratic or insufficient rainfall is only partly responsible for drought, with countries such as Bangladesh, Laos and Cambodia which have above-average annual rainfalls regularly experiencing agricultural drought.

“What we’re saying in this report is that you can have drought also in an area where it rains a lot,” said Maskrey.

“The effect of drought on poor rural families and subsistence farmers in Africa is... a huge problem. But that’s not the only problem,” Maskrey added. “There’s drought affecting urban areas, drought in areas where there should be lots of water, drought provoked by development.”

A mixture of factors play a part, including poverty, increasing water demand due to urbanisation, industrialisation and the growth of agricultural business as well as climate variability and change, the report said.

GENDER BLINDNESS

Governments can and should eliminate low-severity but frequent disasters caused by localised hazards which are responsible for much damage to local infrastructure and to the lives of people in poor communities, Maskrey said.

“Obviously one small-scale disaster almost passes unnoticed but when you look at countries like Indonesia and Philippines, when you have literally 500 or a thousand small disasters in any one year every single year, it represents a very significant proportion of the risk and losses,” he said.

“We need to be aware of a one in 500-year tsunami but ultimately there’s very little we can do about it,” he said, adding a government can lower the number of small-scale disasters with “fairly simple public investments such as improving drainage, stabilising hillsides and slight improvement in building.”

Also, countries have been slow to take into account the needs of children and women who are disproportionately affected by disasters.

 “Countries aren’t really recognising the differentials impact of disaster on men and women,” Maskrey said.

Aid agencies and rights groups routinely identify women and children as the worst affected group in disasters, but in 2009 only 20 percent of the 82 countries and territories signed up to reduce the impact of disasters reported progress in this area.

Two years on and there has been little improvement.

Related FACTBOX: Disasters risks, impacts and loss reduction

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