Poverty & Death: Disaster and Mortality 1996-2015

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Executive Summary

Of the 1.35 million people killed by natural hazards over the past 20 years, more than half died in earthquakes, with the remainder due to weather- and climate related hazards. The overwhelming majority of these deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries. The poorest nations paid the highest price in terms of the numbers killed per disaster and per 100,000 population.

The period 1996 to 2015 saw 7,056 disasters recorded worldwide by EM-DAT, the Emergency Events Database. The frequency of geophysical disasters (primarily earthquakes, including tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions) remained broadly constant throughout this period but there was a sustained rise in climate- and weather-related events (floods, storms and heatwaves in particular) which accounted for the majority of disaster deaths in most years.

In total, the number of weather- and climate-related disasters more than doubled over the past forty years, accounting for 6,392 events in the 20-year period 1996-2015, up from 3,017 in 1976-1995. In 2015, the hottest year on record, almost as many people died in heatwaves as were killed in the Nepalese earthquake. There was also a doubling of major reported droughts (32) by comparison with the annual average of 16 over the decade 2006-2015.

In terms of disaster mortality, EM-DAT recorded 749,000 earthquake deaths in the past 20 years, with 357,000 lives lost between 2006 and 2015, the majority in the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010. In the previous decade (1996-2005) earthquakes claimed 392,000 lives, a fgure inflated by another megadisaster, the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.

Analysis of EM-DAT data shows that tsunamis were 16 times more deadly than ground movements in terms of the proportion of victims killed. That makes tsunamis (a sub-type of earthquake) the most deadly major hazard on the planet.

The global plan for reducing disaster losses, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, adopted by all UN member States in March 2015, sets a target for a substantial reduction in global disaster mortality; the statistics in this report point towards several major conclusions with implications for achieving this target:

  • The high death tolls from earthquakes, including tsunamis, over the last 20 years is a deeply troubling trend given the pace of urbanization around the world in many seismic zones. This underlines the need to promote the mainstreaming of disaster risk assessments into land-use policy development and implementation, including urban planning, building codes and investing in earthquake-resistant infrastructure, notably housing, schools, health facilities and work places. The private sector, and the construction industry in particular, need to be partners in this endeavour;

  • While better data is needed on overall disaster mortality, particularly in relation to weather- and climate-related hazards in low-income and lowermiddle-income countries, it is clear that there needs to be more focus on alleviating the impact of climate change on countries which contribute least to greenhouse gas emissions but which suffer disproportionate losses of life because of extreme weather events exacerbated by rising sea levels and the warming of the land and sea;

  • Overall, there is much higher exposure to disasters and the risk of death in lowand middle-income countries which needs to be addressed through improved early warning systems, better preparedness, weather forecasting and greater investment in resilient infrastructure;

  • The continuing loss of life in high-income countries underlines how, even in the absence of a megadisaster, countries continue to be vulnerable to new emerging risk scenarios as evidenced by the triple nuclear, earthquake and tsunami disaster which overtook Japan in 2011, also Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, and the 2003 heatwaves which claimed 70,000 lives in Europe. Policies and practices for disaster risk management should be based on an understanding of disaster risk in all its dimensions and must be factored into both public and private sector investment decisions. Particular attention must be paid to vulnerable groups. A disproportionately high number of older people died in Hurricane Katrina and the 2003 heatwaves, for example;

  • The three megadisasters (more than 100,000 fatalities) which marked the last 20 years demonstrate the truth of the statement that the worst disasters which could happen have not happened yet. The Indian Ocean Tsunami, Cyclone Nargis and the Haitian earthquake all underline the importance of preparing for worst-case scenarios where the evidence demonstrates that such events are predictable, and require strong disaster risk governance at the local, national, regional and global level.