The combination of human-driven climate change and rapidly changing socio-economic conditions will set off chain reactions of devastation leading to super disasters, according to a report released today by international aid organizations.
“Everyone is aware of the environmental problems of global warming and deforestation on the one hand, and the social problems of increasing poverty and growing shanty towns on the other. But when these two factors collide, you have a new scale of catastrophe,” said Astrid Heiberg, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Over the last six years, the aid organizations have watched the number of people needing their assistance rise from less than half a million to more than 5 million, said Hieberg.
Last year’s season of natural disasters caused more damage than ever before, according the World Disasters Report 1999, an annual survey of humanitarian trends put out by the federation. The report indicates that declining soil fertility, drought, flooding and deforestation drove 25 million people from their land and into the shanty towns of fast-growing cities.
Through an analysis of Hurricane Mitch and the weather phenomena El Niño and La Niña, the report shows a trend toward weather-triggered super-disasters. For example, when the effects of El Niño struck Indonesia, causing the worst drought in 50 years it set off a chain reaction of crises. The rice crop failed, the price of imported rice quadrupled, the currency dropped by 80 percent, food riots erupted in the capital, Jakarta, and massive forest fires burning out of control in the countryside paralyzed parts of Indonesia with a toxic layer of smoke.
Developing countries will be hardest hit by the effects of climate change, environmental degradation and population pressures, according to the report. Already, 96 percent of all deaths from natural disasters occur in developing countries.
One billion people are living in the world’s unplanned shanty towns and 40 of the 50 fastest-growing cities are located in earthquake zones. An additional 10 million people live under constant threat of floods, according to the report.
On the positive side, the report indicates that disaster preparedness is paying off in countries like China. The country has invested $3.5 billion in flood control over the last 40 years and saved the country $12 billion in potential losses.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies concludes that people need to change the way they look at disasters and change the system if they want to prevent loss of life and the wasting of donor funds.
“We have to structure and fund our emergency services internationally, the same way we do domestically. We don’t wait until a house catches fire, then raise money for the fire department,” said Peter Walker, the federation’s director of disaster policy.