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Are things getting better? Or are they getting worse?

“What I really want to know is this? Are things getting better? Or are they getting worse?” – Laurie Anderson, “Same Time Tomorrow”

This is the sort of question one might find oneself asking as Pakistan digs out from a devastating earthquake, Guatemala from hurricane-related mudslides, the US Gulf Coast from Katrina and Rita, and countries on the Indian Ocean continue to recover from last year’s tsunami. Surely this is some sort of record year for natural catastrophe?

While this might be the case, what’s even more likely is this – this past year’s tragedies are part of a general trend that sees more – and more deadly – disasters occurring every year. According to the UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, 254 million people were affected by natural disasters in 2003, almost three times as many as were affected in 1990. (The BBC cited this report a little over a year ago, noting, “The assessment comes as the Caribbean and the US are being hit by a series of devastating hurricanes.” Not Katrina – last year’s devastating hurricanes.

The number of disasters increased, from 261 in 1990 to 337 in 2003, and more people died as a result of them, up from 53,000 to 83,000. (It’s worth noting that the ISDR doesn’t consider famine or chronic disease to be natural disasters – in Africa, for instance, far more deaths are caused by HIV/AIDS, chronic malnutrition and other less dramatic killers than by natural disasters.)

UN/ISDR’s report puts some of the blame for the increase in natural disasters on global warming, but notes that there are political and economic factors that are even more important. The ongoing phenomenon of rural to urban migration puts millions of poor people on land that had been previous rejected as too dangerous to build on because it’s on seismic faults, flood planes or landslide-prone hillsides. In many cases, migrants are living in “informal housing”, which is rarely built to comply with building codes. When natural disasters arise, their homes stand little chance of surviving and they are more likely to be killed, injured or displaced than other residents of these urban areas.

UN/ISDR tracks four types of natural disasters – hydrometeorological (floods, hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis), geological (earthquakes), biological (epidemics, insect swarms) and technological (chemical spills, transportation and industrial accidents). Of the four, hydrometeo events affect the most people, by far, impacting roughly 60,000 of every million people in the developing world – geological events – the second most impactful – affect only 866 of every million in the developing world, on average. Asia is, by a factor of two, the UN region most affected by natural disasters, followed by Oceania. Europe is the least affected – Europeans have roughly a twentieth the chance of being affected by a natural disaster in a given year as an Asian does.

The statistics paint a different picture when we consider who is killed by natural disasters, not who is affected. While hydrometeo disasters are the most deadly in the Americas and Europe (responsible for 7.6 deaths per million in the US and 5.9 deaths per million in Europe), other factors emerge as killers in other regions. Geological disasters kill 7.3 people per million in Oceania, and biological events – epidemics, locust swarms – kill 7.4 people per million in Africa. Technological disasters are also major killers in Africa, responsible for 3.7 deaths per million – this might reflect deaths from transportation accidents (airplane and bus crashes), which have been a major problem for the continent.

Thinking in terms of deaths per million, it’s understandable why the US reacted so strongly to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, essentially elevating terrorism prevention and response to a higher priority than disaster relief – the four incidents on 9/11 killed 2,986 Americans. In a nation of 295 million people, that amounts to 10.12 deaths per million from terrorism, higher than OECD nations generally see from all causes (7.5 deaths per million).

Fortunately there’s been no subsequent incident with the same impact as 9/11. But the evidence suggests that natural disasters will become increasingly deadly, in the US and around the world. UN/ISDR’s numbers suggest that the misery of the past year may be less an anomaly and more a preview of what’s to come. (As my friend Martín Varsavsky puts it, “I think it´s time that United States realizes that its most dangerous enemies are [not] PEOPLE but NATURE. More precisely nature attacked by humanity with its main aggressor in terms of carbon emissions and global warming being the United States itself.”

With this in mind, I’m interested to see what comes out of Jeff Jarvis’s Recovery 2.0 discussions at the Web 2.0 conference. Inspired by efforts like Katrina PeopleFinder, SEA EAT and others, Jarvis is asking organizers and geeks to think about how web-based efforts can be better prepared to respond to disasters in the future. My sense: it’s a very good time to get our collective act together, as it’s pretty clear that it’s not getting better – it’s getting worse. (Saheli attended the gathering and has some interesting ideas for what to do next.

Image – graph of natural disasters registered in UN/ISDR’s disasters database, between 1900-2003, accessed here. We can safely assume that disasters are better reported as communications technology has improved over the years. But the divergence between geological, biological and hydrometeo disasters suggests that there may be more going on than just population growth and urbanization. If earthquake occurrance is constant, we’d expect to see a rise in people affected as more people move into substandard urban housing – and we do. We see an even steeper rise in biological incidents, which makes sense as concentrated populations have potential to spread epidemics at much higher rates than dispersed populations. But neither rise is comparable to the steep increase in hydrometeorological disasters, a rise that strongly suggests something very weird is happening with the world’s weather.

4 thoughts on “Are things getting better? Or are they getting worse?”

  1. Pingback: antoin@eire.com » Are things getting better? Or are they getting worse?

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