At a glance: DISASTERS

Disasters are getting both more frequent and more serious. During the 1990s, their number increased threefold and their cost, in real terms, rose ninefold. Munich Re, the world’s biggest reinsurance company, calculated that, in 1998 alone, economic losses from weather-related disasters exceeded those for the whole of the previous decade.

There are three broad reasons for these increases. First, people are increasingly putting themselves and their property in harm’s way. As population and poverty increase, more and more people are having to live on vulnerable land, whether sandbars on the coast of Bangladesh or steep hillsides in Rio. Developed countries too are increasingly building on floodplains while 40 of the world’s 50 fastest growing cities are in earthquake zones.

Second, the Earth’s natural defences against disaster are becoming ever more eroded, for example, as forests (which absorb the rain) are cut down, mangroves (which protect coasts) are destroyed, and wetlands (which soak up floodwater) are drained.

Lastly, global warming is expected to increase storms, droughts and other extreme weather events – and may already be doing so – and to flood low-lying coasts, even drowning entire island nations as the seas rise.

Whatever the cause, it is almost always the poor who suffer most. Ninety per cent of disasters happen in developing countries, and within countries it is the poorest who are most at risk.

‘Floods target the poor’ says the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. An earthquake that killed 23,000 people in Guatemala City in 1976 became known as the ‘class quake’ because of the way it hit the destitute.

Geoffrey Lean

HURRICANES By the time Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in 1998, it had been downgraded to a tropical storm. But it became the worst disaster ever to hit the Western hemisphere, killing some 10,000 people, because it dropped its rains on deforested hillsides, causing devastating mudslides. The flooding of the Yangtse the same year, the worst in 50 years, was exacerbated because 80 per cent of the trees in the river basin had been felled. And floods have increased greatly in Bangladesh, where 2 million people had their homes inundated in 1999 as a result of deforestation in the Himalayas. Trees trap the rain and allow it slowly to percolate into the soil. When they are cleared the water runs off bare hills, and eroded topsoil raises river beds; both of these processes increase flooding.

INDUSTRIAL ACCIDENTS The poor are disproportionately hit by industrial accidents because the most hazardous installations tend to be sited in deprived areas. The effects of the Bhopal disaster in 1984 – which killed 8,000 people and injured 50,000 – were greatly aggravated because the shanty town of Jayaprakash Nagar had grown to just 5 metres away from the factory’s boundary.

FOREST FIRES Three years ago fierce forest fire raging in Indonesia cast a pall of smoke over six Southeast Asian countries and may have affected the health of 70 million people. At the same time, great fires burned some 3 million hectares of the Brazilian State of Roraima. About the same area of Mongolia had gone up in flames the previous year. Since then there have been more serious fires in both Indonesia and Brazil and, among other countries, in China, Russia, Greece, Australia and the United States: in the summer of 2000, 1.75 million hectares of the western United States were burned by flames up to 80 feet high. Most fires are started by people, and many have been exacerbated by logging and land clearance.

EARTHQUAKES Eighty per cent of deaths in earthquakes are caused by collapsing buildings, and the toll is greatest among the poor who can often afford only badly constructed housing. Most of the 100,000 people who died in a quake in Armenia in 1988 were living in cheap concrete buildings, and it was much the same in the 1970 earthquake in Peru which killed 60,000 people. In Turkey in 1999 and in Kobe, Japan, in 1995, it was also the worst buildings that caused most of the carnage. Conversely, appropriate designs – whether high-tech skyscrapers or traditional lightweight buildings – save lives.

DEFORESTATION Forest clearance contributes to desertification and drought as soil erodes and water supplies dry up. Ethiopia’s highlands supported agrarian civilizations for millennia, but 90 per cent of its forests have been cut down since 1990: some 20,000 square kilometres of land have already lost so much soil that they can no longer grow crops. As desertification – also caused by overcultivation, overgrazing and poor irrigation practices – advances, one person in six in Mali and Burkina Faso has had to leave land turning to dust. About 135 million people are in danger of becoming environmental refugees.


UNEP has strengthened its contribution of environmental expertise to the United Nations’ coordinated responses to natural and man-made disasters. It has doubled its efforts in providing assistance to affected countries, especially developing ones.

Recent action by UNEP, alone or with partners, has included:

  • Assessing the impact of the conflict in the Balkans on the environment and human settlements through a Task Force, which recommended immediate remedial actions at ‘hot spots’ in four cities in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. UNEP produced a plan for cleaning them up, which is now being implemented.

  • Evaluating the impact on the environment of the serious floods in China in 1998. UNEP, in collaboration with UNCHS (Habitat), is now helping China to develop a vulnerability assessment for floods in the Yangtse River Basin.

  • Jointly developing, with Habitat, a project to promote technical exchange and management on flood mitigation and management among South Asian countries.

  • Assessing the implications of earthquakes and the environment through a joint mission with Habitat to Turkey.

  • Assessing the environmental impacts of the spill of waste containing cyanide and heavy metals from a gold mine in Romania – and making recommendations on responding to them jointly with the United Nations Office of Coordination for Human Affairs (OCHA), in response to a formal request by the Governments of Romania, Hungary and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

  • Assessing the impacts of the serious floods in Venezuela and Mozambique, with joint UNEP/Habitat missions.

A joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit has coordinated, mobilized and helped broker international assistance for the following environmental emergencies:

  • Tajikistan – threat of a major dam break, July 1999.

  • Kenya – aviation fuel spill, March 1999.

  • Turkey – earthquake resulting in an oil leak and fire at a petroleum refinery, August 1999.

  • Venezuela – chemical contamination of a major port area, January 2000.

  • Romania and Hungary – tailings spill, March 2000.

  • Kosovo – major sulphuric acid spill from a battery factory, September 2000.

PHOTOGRAPHS: Nigel Dickinson/Still Pictures, Rod Johnson/Panos Pictures, Dermot Tatlow/Panos Pictures, Jeremy Horner/Panos Pictures, Mark Edwards/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Learning from disaster | Being prepared | The way forward | Breaking the cycle | Flip-flop to catastrophe | Nature's warnings | At a glance | Competition | Insuring against catastrophe | Recreating sustainability | The legacy of conflict | Ask us, involve us | The poor suffer most | Through a slanted lens

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Climate and Action 1998
Issue on Climate Change 1997
Issue on Hazardous Waste 1999
Issue on Small Islands 1999
Issue on Chemicals 1997
Johann Georg Goldammer: Fire watch (Climate and Action) 1998