Annual cost of disasters higher than entire '80s

Graeme Bacque (gbacque@idirect.com)
Sat, 28 Nov 1998 08:14:44 -0500


November 28, 1998

World sets weather record: $138 billion
Annual cost of disasters higher than entire '80s

WASHINGTON (AP) - Violent weather has cost the world a record $138
billion this year, more money than was lost from weather-related
disasters in all of the 1980s, and researchers in a study released
yesterday blame human meddling for much of it.

Preliminary estimates by the Worldwatch Institute and Munich Re, the
world's largest reinsurer, put total losses from storms, floods,
droughts and fires for the first 11 months of this year 48 per cent
higher than the previous one-year record of more than $93 billion in
1996.

This year's damage was also far ahead of the $85 billion in losses for
the entire decade of the 1980s. Even when adjusted for inflation, the
1980s losses, at $128 billion, still fall short of the first 11 months
of this year.

In addition to the material losses, the disasters have killed an
estimated 32,000 people and displaced 300 million - more than the
combined populations of Canada and the United States - the report said.

The study is based on estimates from Worldwatch, an environmental
research group, and Munich Re, the German-based reinsurer, which writes
policies that protect insurance companies from the risk of massive
claims that might put them out of business.

The report says a combination of deforestation and climate change has
caused this year's most severe disasters, among them Hurricane Mitch in
Central America, the flooding of China's Yangtze River and Bangladesh's
most extensive flood of the century.

``More and more, there's a human fingerprint in natural disasters,in
that we're making them more frequent and more intense and we're also . .
. making them more destructive,'' said Seth Dunn, research associate and
climate change expert at the institute.

Dunn said that when hillsides are left bare, rainfall will rush across
the land or into rivers without being slowed by trees and allowed to be
absorbed by the soil, or to evaporate back into the atmosphere. This
leads to floods and landslides that are strong enough to wipe out roads,
farms and fisheries far downstream.

``In a sense, we're turning up the faucets . . . and throwing away the
sponges, like the forests and the wetlands,'' said Dunn.

Another element that has contributed to this year's losses is the
growing population pressures that have led many people to settle on
vulnerable flood plains and hillsides.

The most severe 1998 disasters listed in the report include Hurricane
Mitch, the deadliest Atlantic storm in 200 years, which is believed to
have caused more than 10,000 deaths in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala
and El Salvador, and caused damage estimated at $6 billion in Honduras
and $1.5 billion in Nicaragua.

The study said Mitch hit an ecologically vulnerable region. Central
American nations have experienced some of the highest rates of
deforestation in the world, losing some 2 per cent to 4 per cent of
their remaining forest cover each year.

The costliest disaster of 1998, according to the report, was the
flooding of the Yangtze River in the summer. It killed more than 3,000
people, dislocated about 230 million people and incurred more than $45
billion in losses.

The study said that while heavy summer rains are common in southern and
central China, the Yangtze Basin in recent decades has lost 85 per cent
of its forest cover to logging and agriculture, wetlands have been
drained, and the river heavily dammed.

Bangladesh suffered its most extensive flood of the century in the
summer. Two-thirds of the low-lying country located at the mouth of the
Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers was flooded for months, 30 million people
were left temporarily homeless, and more than 15,000 kilometres of roads
were heavily damaged. Damage estimates exceed $5 billion.

Logging upriver in the Himalayas of north India and Nepal exacerbated
the disaster, as did the fact that the region's rivers and flood plains
have been filled with silt and constricted by development, the report
said.

``Climate change and rising sea levels are projected to make Bangladesh
even more vulnerable to flooding in the future,'' said the study.

The study said governments are beginning to recognize the role of human
activities in worsening natural disasters. It noted that China has
banned logging in the upper Yangtze watershed, prohibited additional
land reclamation projects in the river's flood plain and earmarked $3
billion to reforest the watershed.

``Unless ravaged nations rebuild along a path of sustainable development
that emphasizes restoring and maintaining healthy ecosystems, they risk
even greater exposure to the devastation of unnatural disasters in the
future,'' said the report.

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