New institute to combat flood disasters

Posted: 21 June 2004

One of every six people on Earth lives today in the potential path of a 100 year flood - roughly one billion people. That number is expected to double by 2050 due to climate change, deforestation, rising sea levels, and population growth in flood-prone lands, warn experts at the United Nations University.

The warning coincides with the opening this week of a new institute, in Bonn, dedicated to study of the Environment and Human Security.

Summer floods make life miserable for residents of Bangladesh.
Summer floods make life miserable for residents of Bangladesh.
Every summer floods make life miserable for residents of Bangladesh. Photo © NIEHS
The institute aims to bolster the capacity of governments to respond to natural disasters, and establish sustainable land management practices.

"The growing frequency and magnitude of extreme environmental events worldwide has intensified research interest in natural disasters as well as regional vulnerability and response capabilities," says Dr Janos Bogardi, founding director of the United Nations University Institute of Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS).

Supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the Ministry of Science and Research of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, UNU-EHS will focus at first on flood plains and deltas, with emphasis on urban centers. Drought and its impact on rural communities are planned as an added priority from 2006.

In addition to natural calamities, the Institute will work on what Bogardi calls "creeping" environmental hazards - climate change, land degradation, degradation of the social environment, population displacement, and changing resource availability and quality - which imperil communities in a more gradual but equally detrimental and multifaceted way.

Floods affect 520 million people worldwide every year, resulting in up to 25,000 annual deaths, extensive homelessness, disease, crop and livestock damage and other serious harm.

Unsustainable land use and other human actions aggravate the situation.

Flood damage along the Choluteca River in Honduras caused by Hurricane Mitch. Photo: NOAA
Flood damage along the Choluteca River in Honduras caused by Hurricane Mitch. Photo: NOAA
Flood damage along the Choluteca River in Honduras caused by Hurricane Mitch. Over 9,000 deaths and 9,000 missing were attributed to Mitch making it the second most deadly hurricane in history ranking only below a 1780 hurricane in the Lesser Antilles.© Debbie Larson/NOAA
Damage caused by floods and other climatic disasters now costs between $50 to $60 billion per year, much of it in developing countries, and it is often the world's poorest people who suffer the most.

The cost to the world economy of these disasters is roughly equal to the global development aid provided by all donor countries combined. Figures like these may vault natural disaster issues to the top of the world's political agenda.

Even the most advanced nations are affected. The 2002 floods in Europe killed roughly 100 people, affected 450,000 people and left $20 billion in damages.

The United States, which suffered 50 deaths and $50 billion in damage in the 1993 Mississippi River flood, has averaged 25 flood deaths annually since the 1980s.

But the greatest potential flood hazard is in Asia. Every year for the past two decades, an average of 400 million people have been directly exposed to a flood.

Between 1987 and 1997, 44 per cent of all flood disasters worldwide affected Asia, claiming 228,000 lives - roughly 93 per cent of all flood-related deaths worldwide. Economic losses in the region in that decade totaled US$136 billion.

In the warmer, wetter world predicted by scientists today, the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere will likely see more storms, while some continental areas might have drier summers and more risk of drought.

Sea levels could rise, fed in part by melt-water from glaciers and ice caps. Along with this, extreme high-water levels may occur with increasing frequency. Higher sea levels could inundate small islands, flood coastal lowlands, and erode sand dunes.

Flood victim, Chapmansville, West Virginia. Photo: FEMA
Flood victim, Chapmansville, West Virginia. Photo: FEMA
In Chapmansville, West Virginia a flood victim sits on the garage floor of what remains of his flooded house. Two days after the flood, his damaged natural gas tank caught fire destroying the house and three cars. June 26, 2003. © Leif Skoogfors/FEMA
"Most urgently needed to adapt to the growing risk of flood disasters is greater global capacity to monitor and forecast extreme events," Dr Bogardi says. "Armed with better information, superior early warning systems and infrastructure can be installed, and new planning strategies devised." Forecasting and warning systems commonly show a cost-benefit ratio of 10 or 15 to one, he says.

A grand overarching system incorporating various global observing systems (including climate, oceans and terrestrial) is in the works. A 10-year implementation plan for a Global Earth Observing System of Systems was presented in April to 43 countries from the G8, Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America gathered in Japan for a second summit meeting on this observation effort.

There needs to be a shift in the international mindset - from reaction and charity to anticipation and preemption - Dr Bogardi says. Countries are typically generous with post-disaster relief but less so when it comes to pre-disaster preparedness, spending $100 in relief for every $1 in preparedness.

Recent studies have also shown the cost of constructing disaster resistant buildings adds only two to 12 per cent on average to the final costs.

"While economic losses due to natural disasters destroy resources equivalent to two percent of GDP [Gross Domestic Product] in developed countries, in developing countries, the proportion can reach as high as 13 per cent of GDP. Unsustainable practices and the ever increasing disasters they trigger prevent people to break through the brutal cycle of poverty," he said.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights Reserved.

A longer version of this article can be viewed on the ENS website.