Increase in disasters linked to environmental damage

Posted: 24 April 2006

Climate change and environmental degradation may lie behind a sharp rise in the number of natural disasters, according to a new World Bank report.

The reported number of major disasters has increased from fewer than 100 in 1975 to more than 400 in 2005, according to Hazards of Nature, Risks to Development, just published by the World Bank. While the number of earthquakes has remained relatively stable, the number of disaster caused by severe weather has risen sharply.

"There has been an increase in incidents of disaster clearly tied to environmental degradation around the world," said Ronald Parker, lead author of the report.

Increasing environmental degradation also contributes to the intensification of the effects of natural events, says the report.

  • In drought, problems associated with a shortage of water are exacerbated by deforestation, soil erosion, and inappropriate land use.
  • Floods are caused by the silting up of rivers and the loss of absorptive capacity of the soil - both legacies of poor agricultural practices that destroy groundcover and other natural environmental defences.
  • Destruction of forests and overgrazing to meet the needs of growing population leads to desertification.
  • Earthquakes are most destructive in countries with poor building code enforcement, and when landslide-prone, steeply sloped land loses grass and forest cover and becomes occupied by informal housing.

Cost of disaster damage is rising
Cost of disaster damage is rising
The cost of disaster damage is rising. Source: IMF, 2003
Natural hazards have also become costlier as populations have grown and more people have moved to vulnerable coastal locations. The costs are now 15 times higher than they were in the 1950s - $652 billion in material losses in the 1990s, according to the IMF. Approximately 2.6 billion people were affected by natrual disasters in the paste 10 years, compared with 1.6 billion in the previous decade.

Lester Brown, head of the Earth Policy Institute, said: "This report underlines that although we continue to call these natural disasters, they are sometimes clearly of human origin."

The World Bank says that countries should focus on environmental sustainability - and should also, with donors, integrate predictable disaster risks into development programmes. The report suggests that $1 spent on preparation could save $5-$10 in reduced damage.