The Year that Shook the Rich: A Review of Natural Disasters in 2011

from Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement
Published on 13 Mar 2012 View Original

This Review analyzes some of the major events and trends related to natural disasters and humanitarian disaster response in 2011.

2011 was the most expensive year in terms of disaster losses in history, mostly because of a spate of disasters affecting developed countries. Globally, the ecnonomic cost of disasters in 2011 was $380 billion, of which $210 billion were the result of the earthquake and tsunmai in Japan. This was 72 percent higher than the losses in 2005, the second costliest year in history of disaster-related losses.

In terms of both the number of disasters and the number of people affected by them, 2011 was a below-average year in comparison with the previous decade. With 302 disasters recorded by the International Disaster Database (EM-DAT), 2011 saw the lowest number of disasters since the beginning of the millennium. The number of disasters was almost 20 percent below the average annual figure of 384 natural disasters from 2001-2010. There were 206 million disaster-affected persons in 2011, which is about ten percent below the ten-year average.

Developed countries were particularly hard-hit by disasters in 2011 as evidenced by floods in Australia, earthquakes in New Zealand, an earthquake/tsunami in Japan and a series of disasters in the United States. While natural disasters result in higher economic losses in rich countries, fewer people tend to be affected and loss of life is less than in developing countries. Higher levels of preparedness, resilience and good governance in many cases help richer countries to recover faster from natural disasters than poorer ones.

While developed countries generally have the resources to respond to the effects of natural disasters, when a major disaster strikes they still have to deal with responding to offers of international assistance.

The post-tsunami Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan poses serious questions about preparedness for technological and industrial accidents caused by natural hazards as well as questions about the safety of nuclear technology.

Examples from last-year’s disasters in the rich world show that investment in disaster risk reduction and preparedness pay off and are cheaper than postdisaster reconstruction. Still, high-impact low-probability events can overwhelm the best prepared society.

Disaster plans and defenses need to be adjusted to a new and shifting “normal.” Because of climate change, predictions are that intervals of heavy precipitation and extreme temperatures will likely become more frequent in the future. In other words, what was formerly a “once-in-a-century” disaster might become a “once-in-a-generation” disaster. Furthermore, new “once-in-a-century” disasters may simply overwhelm the current state of preparations.

Several positive trends in international humanitarian response were evident in the course of 2011, including promising developments in international disaster law, greater emphasis on disaster risk reduction and preparedness, and better communications during crises, including the use of social media in disaster response.

Post-disaster recovery and reconstruction after a major disaster are long-term processes which need much more scrutiny and attention. Examples from rich countries suggest that rebuilding processes can be participatory and can incorporate sound principles such as risk reduction and green technologies.

There are still major methodological difficulties in terms of measuring the effects of natural disasters, especially when it comes to measuring the economic costs of disasters and understanding the particular characteristics of slow-onset disasters such as drought.

The first famine in twenty years was declared in Somalia in mid-2011, demonstrating the deadly interaction of conflict, political instability and drought that can result in a catastrophe with high human casualties. Although there were warning signs in Somalia for almost a year before famine was declared, the international community was unable to prevent its outbreak due to continuing conflict and the resulting lack of humanitarian access to affected communities.

The interconnections between disasters (especially mega-disasters), media coverage and humanitarian funding means that humanitarian funding tends to be directed toward disasters that have higher media coverage rather than to those with disaster-affected populations in greater need of assistance. Thus in 2011 almost half of humanitarian disaster funding reported through the UN’s Financial Tracking Service was sent to Japan – where it made up only about a third of one percent of the total economic cost of the disaster. Overall, international humanitarian funding for disasters declined from almost $6.5 billion in 2010 to around $1.5 billion in 2011.

Global population is aging at an unprecedented scale and yet the special needs of older people in emergencies are often neglected. In 1950 around eight percent of the world’s population was over the age of 60 – a percentage projected to increase to 22 percent by 2050. In disasters such as the earthquake/tsunami in Japan and Hurricane Katrina, older people made up a disproportionate percentage of casualties. Given the fact that developing countries are also experiencing an increase in the percentage of elderly people, it is likely that a lack of focus on older persons in all phases, from planning to emergency management to post-disaster reconstruction, can result in higher fatalities among older people, long-term chronic health issues, psychosocial trauma and isolation. Treating older people simply as “normal” disaster victims denies the specific vulnerabilities that many older people face.

More work is needed to recognize the positive contributions which older people can make in reducing the risks from disasters, in disaster response and in recovery and reconstruction.