Killer storms and droughts Increasing

Posted: 25 February 2003

Economic losses from weather and flood catastrophes have increased ten-fold over the past 50 years, partially the result of rapid climate changes, the World Water Council (WWC) says

These rapid climate changes are seen in more intense rainy seasons, longer dry seasons, stronger storms, shifts in rainfall and rising sea levels. More disastrous floods and droughts have been the most visible manifestation of these changes.

From 1971 to 1995, floods affected more than 1.5 billion people worldwide, or 100 million people per year, according to experts. This total includes 318,000 killed and more than 81 million left homeless. Major floods that left at least 1,000 people dead and caused $1 billion in damages per episode have been the most destructive.

"Extreme weather records are being broken every year and the resulting hydro-meteorological disasters claim thousands of lives and disrupt national economies," says William Cosgrove, Vice-President of the World Water Council. "The big problem is that most countries aren't ready to deal adequately with the severe natural disasters that we get now, a situation that will become much worse as storms and droughts become more pervasive. Ignoring the problem is no longer an option."

Hydrological cycle

According to climate experts, the expected climatic change during the 21st century will further intensify the hydrological cycle - with rainy seasons becoming shorter and more intense in some regions, while droughts in other areas will grow longer in duration, which could endanger species and crops and lead to drops in food production globally.

Evidence of the link between climate change and increasing climate variability is mounting rapidly. For example, scientific research has linked the recent droughts in the United States and Afghanistan to the effects of global warming.

"Devastating floods seem to be getting worse," says Hideaki Oda, Director of the secretariat of the 3rd World Water Forum. "In 2002, many floods ravaged parts of the world, especially in Asia and Europe. More than 4,200 people in the world died as a result of flooding, and more than 16 million people have been affected by floods in the last year."

Most vulnerable

The United Nations estimates that by 2025 half the world's population will be living in areas that are at risk from storms and other weather extremes.

"The fact is that the poor are not only the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate variability and change on water resources, but those with the least capacity to cope with such impacts," says Ryutaro Hashimoto, former Prime Minister of Japan and Chairman, National Steering Committee of the 3rd World Water Forum.

"We must assist such countries in adopting 'win-win' actions that address directly the more immediate water management problems while preparing for the consequences of longer term climate changes," he said.

The problems of climate and water will be a prime topic of the upcoming 3rd World Water Forum, where some 10,000 government officials, representatives of international and non-governmental organizations, industry and water experts will discuss the world water crisis and its solutions.

The Forum, to be held in Kyoto, Japan, from March 16-23 of this year, is expected to be the most important international water conference ever held. The Forum will be the central highlight of the UN's 2003 International Year of Freshwater and World Water Day, March 22. "World Water Actions, the main report that is being prepared for Kyoto, is the next step towards achieving the objectives of the Vision for water global security, adopted in at the previous Forum in 2000," says Dr. Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, Egyptian Minister of Water and Irrigation and President of the World Water Council.

"It will provide a clear picture of the on-going worldwide activities that are aiming to improve water resources management. When completed and multiplied, these actions can lead to achievement of the World Water Vision."

Key points

Other key points made in the World Water Council's report are:

  • The number of significant flood disasters in the 1990s was higher than in the three previous decades combined.

  • In the most calamitous storm surge, the flood in Bangladesh in April 1991 killed 140,000 people. Two floods in China, one in 1996 and the second in 1998, caused the highest material losses of the decade, of the order of $30 billion and $26.5 billion respectively.

  • The Mozambique floods of 2000 left nearly one million people homeless and resulted in a 45 per cent drop in GDP in that yar. By contrast, the 2002 flood in Germany, with its more developed resources, caused less than a one per cent drop in GDP.

  • Hurricane Mitch, which hit Central America in 1998 killed 11,000 people, with thousands of others missing and more than three million people were either homeless or severely affected. The storm destroyed 50 years of progress, said President Carlos Facusse.

  • The impact of floods has had increasingly detrimental and disruptive effects on human health, with the spread of diseases such as diarrhea.

  • Up to 45 per cent of reported deaths from natural disasters between 1992 and 2001 resulted from droughts and famines. The most vulnerable communities are impoverished peoples occupying marginal rural and urban environments.

  • Many countries in Africa have been suffering from unprecedented droughts that may signal widespread climate change.

    For example in Ghana, the Akosombo Reservoir which was created in 1966 and at one time supplied 95 per cent, has shrunk to half its size, partly due to climate change.

  • A direct consequence of drought is crop loss that could cause "a huge increase in the number of people at risk of hunger by 2080."

    Under the best circumstances developing countries will have to increase their cereal imports over the next 15 years to between 170 million tons and 430 million tons. Climate change will add to this dependence, increasing net cereal imports of developing regions by 10-40 per cent.

  • Arguing for preventive action, the Council says that it has been estimated that every dollar spent on protection from natural disasters can save from four to ten dollars in relief.

  • The Council calls for increasing partnerships between science, water managers and those involved in disaster preparedness.