The Heat Is Online

Red Cross: Climate Change Hits Poor Countries Hardest

By Elizabeth Olson, The New York Times, June 24, 1999

GENEVA -- Driven by climatic changes, natural disasters are increasing, threatening economically vulnerable countries, a Red Cross report warned Wednesday.

"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 shantytowns on the other," the president of the Red Cross International Federation, Dr. Astrid Heiberg, said. "But when these two factors collide, you have a new scale of catastrophe."

The annual World Disasters Report said that in six years, the number of people who needed aid after disasters like floods and earthquakes had risen, from fewer than 500,000 a year to more than 5.5 million.

In 1998, natural disasters left far more people needing aid than armed conflicts did, the report said. Drought, flooding, deforestation and soil problems drove more than 25 million people from their houses, the study found.

In Indonesia, the El Niño weather pattern set off the worst drought in 50 years, exemplifying a trend of chain-reaction disasters, the report said. The drought caused rice yields to plummet and led to an increase in rice imports. Because of a devalued currency, the price of imported rice soared to four times its earlier level and food riots erupted in the capital, Jakarta. At the same time, Indonesia had a dry rainy season, so fires that farmers set in slash-and-burn agriculture were not doused.

Other countries and regions have also suffered disasters like Hurricane Mitch in Central America.

"Both climate change and environmental change are forcing people into more vulnerable areas," the disaster response coordinator for the Red Cross Federation, Margareta Wahlstrom, said.

The poor often cluster in urban or coastal areas to seek employment. One billion people live in unplanned shantytowns, and 40 of the 50 fastest growing cities are in earthquake zones, the report stated.

An additional 10 million people are vulnerable to flooding because they live in low-lying areas.

The Red Cross estimated that 96 percent of deaths from natural disasters were in developing countries.

"We used to look at these natural disasters as blips on the screen of a country's development," the director of disaster policy at the Red Cross, Peter Walker, said. "But now they really change the development future of a country."

Access to insurance is dropping because insurers have incurred mounting losses for 10 years, the report said, and natural disasters represent 85 percent of insured catastrophe losses.

Red Cross predicts climatic super disasters

Agence France-Presse

GENEVA, June 24 (AFP) - The world is heading for a spate of "super" disasters sparked by a mix of climate change, environmental damage and population pressures, a Red Cross report said on Thursday.The forecast was contained in the World Disasters Report 1999 published by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

According to the survey, last year's season of natural disasters was the worst on record, causing more damage than ever before.

Most of the destruction to lives and livelihoods occurred in poor countries, just as international aid flows continue to plunge, the report said.

Asia suffered the heaviest toll in terms of fatalities and economic fall-out, with massive flooding ravaging parts of China, Blangadesh and Nepal, murderous cyclones in India and two major earthquakes in Afghanistan.

Of the 60,000 people killed in man-made and natural disasters last year, half of the victims were in Asia, the federation said.

Hurricane Mitch, the deadliest Atlantic hurricane in 200 years, was another mega disaster, spawning landslides and floods mainly in Honduras and Nicaragua that left around 10,000 people dead.

The Pacific's deadly climatic duo, El Nino and La Nina, wreaked worldwide havoc, drenching Latin America but bringing drought to southern and eastern Africa and the worst dry spell in Indonesia in half a century. The El nino phenomenon shows "compelling" evidence of trends towards weather triggered super-disasters, the report said.

The federation noted that the drought in Indonesia set off a chain reaction of crises from a rice crop failure to massive forest fires burning out of control, paralysing parts of the country with a toxic layer of smoke.

"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," said federation president Astrid Heiberg.

"But when these two factors collide, you have a new scale of catastrophe," she said, adding that the insidious combination was throwing millions more people into the path of potential disaster.

In 1998, natural disasters created more "refugees" than wars and conflict as declining soil fertility, drought, flooding and deforestation drove 25 million people from their land into packed city slums.

The report warned that emergency aid funding had dropped by 40 percent between 1994 and 1997 from a peak of 3.5 billion dollars to 2.1 billion as rich countries tightened their purse strings.

In 1998 alone, more than 700 "large-loss" natural disasters caused more than 90 billion dollars in economic losses, far outweighing the insured tally, according to reinsurance firm MunichRe.

In the case of Hurricane Mitch, only two percent of the estimated seven billion dollar economic burden was covered, the report said.

"And that substantial gap will increase as the insurance industry continues to retreat from the front line of disaster coverage to escape escalating losses," the federation said.

Insurance cover for floods, deemed the most murderous catastrophe, is the most scarce.Floods account for almost half of all economic losses but just 11 percent of insured losses worldwide. In many countries, flood insurance is simply not available, the report pointed out.

The survey did highlight one bright spot.

Data contained in the report showed evidence that higher investment in disaster preparedness pays off. For instance in China, a recent analysis of disaster preparedness indicated that 3.5 billion dollars invested in flood control over the last 40 years had saved the economy 12 billion dollars in potential losses.

RED CROSS PREDICTS A DECADE OF SUPER-DISASTERS

(Release of International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies June, 1999)

The explosive combination of human-driven climate change and rapidly changing socio-economic conditions will set off chain reactions of devastation leading to super-disasters. Evidence of this grim prediction is contained in a report issued today by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

According to the World Disasters Report 1999, an annual survey of humanitarian trends, last year's season of natural disasters was the worst on record causing more damage than ever before.

"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 new scale of catastrophe," says Dr. Astrid Heiberg, President of the International Federation. "At the Red Cross and Crescent alone, we have a huge increase in the number of people needing our assistance due to floods and earthquakes. In the last six years, it has risen from less than half a million to more than five and a half million."

In 1998, natural disasters created more 'refugees' than wars and conflict. The report indicates that declining soil fertility, drought, flooding and deforestation drove 25 million 'environmental refugees' from their land and into the already vulnerable squatter communities of fast-growing cities. They represented 58 per cent of total refugee population worldwide.

By analysing the consequences of Hurricane Mitch and the deadly twins, El Nino and La Nina, the report shows compelling evidence of a trend towards weather triggered super-disasters. For example, when the effects of El Nino 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 per cent, food riots erupted in the capital, Jakarta, and in the countryside, massive forest fires burning out of control, paralysing parts of the country with a toxic layer of smoke.

The developing world will continue to be hardest hit by the cascading effects of human-driven climate change, environmental degradation and population pressures. Fires, droughts and floods from last year's El Nino claimed 21,000 lives while the deforestation in China's Yangtze basin contributed to the flooding which affected the lives of 180 million people. In Russia, the extreme winter weather turned into a disaster when it struck a society where 44 million people are living in poverty, one million children are homeless, and tuberculosis rates are skyrocketing.

This insidious combination is throwing millions more into the path of potential disaster. Already, 96 per cent 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. Another 10 million people live under constant threat of floods.

The report exposes another disturbing trend. As the number of natural disasters increases and losses escalate, the amount of money going into aid activities is dropping. Over the last five years, emergency aid funds have dropped by 40 per cent and many insurance and reinsurance companies have refused to provide coverage in the Caribbean.

There is one message of hope in World Disasters Report 1999 and it lies in the data showing the success of disaster preparedness. In China, a recent analysis of disaster preparedness indicated that $3.5 billion invested in flood control over the last 40 years has saved the economy $12 billion in potential losses.

The report concludes that more people have 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. "The knee-jerk reaction to disaster response is not working," says Peter Walker, Federation director of disaster policy. "We have to structure and fund our emergency service internationally, the same way we do domestically. We don't wait until a house catches fire, then raise money for the fire department." Spend more money before disaster strikes and invest in disaster preparedness, the report advises.

The Geneva-based International Federation promotes the humanitarian activities of 175 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies among vulnerable people. By coordinating international disaster relief and encouraging development support, it seeks to prevent and alleviate human suffering. The Federation, National Societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross, together constitute the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.