Editorial (IFFN No. 20 – January 1999)



1998 – A Year of Losses – and of Opportunities

(IFFN No. 20 – January 1999)

At the end of 1998 a press release of the largest reinsuring company, the Munich Re, attempted to summarize hard facts on damages caused by natural disasters. More than 50,000 human lives were lost during that year, and the economic losses as a result of the catastrophes exceeded US$ 90 billion in 1998, compared with only $30 billion in 1997, when 13,000 people lost their lives as a result of natural disasters. As a result of “the generally low insurance density in the countries affected, the international insurance industry again had to pay only about 15 percent of the (1998) amount, although the bill of some $15 billion was still the fourth highest ever,” Munich Re said in a statement. Munich Re recorded more than 700 “large loss events” in 1998, compared with between 530 and 600 during recent years. The most frequent natural catastrophes were windstorms (240) and floods (170), which accounted for 85 percent of the total economic losses. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and other events, such as forest fires, droughts, heat waves, cold spells, landslides and avalanches “were less frequent and again caused much less damage in 1998,” the company said.

Comments by the Editor: The number of ca. 500 fatalities during the fire and smoke episode in South East Asia was relatively low as compared to the high number of flood and hurricane victims. The estimated immediate losses of ca. US$10 billion seem to be a minor fraction of the total losses caused by natural disasters. However, during the smoke-haze episode in South East Asia alone more than 40 million people were affected by smoke pollution. There are no counts for the Americas during the same time period. There are numerous uncounted victims of the drought in Asia-Pacific during the 1997-98 El Niño-Southern Oscillation Event – those who suffered and died because of water pollution or shortage, delayed or failed harvests. People living in the backyards of the megacities in the tropical countries do not seem count: They are not insured, and nobody quantifies in terms of money how much they suffered from smoke, fire, or drought. And the forests and their inhabitants, the rich wealth of flora and fauna which disappeared in flames and smoke? The values of the biodiversity assets do not have any standard economic measure which would make their losses comparable to the insured goods of wealthy societies. There is little awareness how much it will probably cost to rehabilitate the terrestrial carbon pool which became distorted when flames mobilized the carbon, removed it from its benign function in the tropical soils, peat layers, timber volumes, and animal life, by injecting it into the atmosphere where it will stay for ever – unless ….

…. unless action is taken. And it seems that more action at international level is underway than ever before. Several UN agencies, UN programmes and other international organizations, notably FAO, IDNDR, UNEP, UNESCO, WHO, WMO, the World Bank, and several NGO fora have taken decisive steps to investigate their role and future involvement in the global fire theatre. For the first time in history joint conferences were organized which allowed sharing of responsibilities to address the complex issues of global fire. The latest UN meeting organized by the FAO convened an international fire expert consultation to investigate the role of public policies on forest fires and to prepare the future strategy of the organization and to prepare a meeting of the ministers of forestry in Rome, March 1999. The results of both events are reported in detail in this current issue of IFFN. Reports of the WHO and WMO activities, mainly related to the question of atmospheric smoke pollution and its effects on public health, are provided in the virtual pages of the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC) information system on the internet. This will soon include the full contents of the WHO Health Guidelines on Episodic Vegetation Fire Events.

On the GFMC website we provide now the last two issues of IFFN in full length (October 1998 and this issue). All issues between 1990 and January 1998 are archived in 56 country files, by “specials”, and research and technology news. IFFN as a fire information platform for the United Nations system is now in its 13th year of production and distributed to more than 1000 agencies and individuals all over the world. With the internet version IFFN becomes easily accessible to everybody worldwide. The internet version is available as soon as the editorial preparation has been finalized. Printing and distribution of the hard copies usually takes some months. Those readers who wish to have faster access to IFFN and other global fire information should have a look at:


Freiburg, March 1999

Johann G. Goldammer, Editor IFFN
The Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC)



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