Lack of development: that’s the real disaster

An Oxfam report suggests climate change has led to a quadrupling of weather-related disasters. It pays to interrogate such heated claims.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

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Are we seeing the disastrous consequences of global warming already? That’s the conclusion of a new report, Climate Alarm, by the British aid charity, Oxfam: ‘Climatic disasters are on the increase as the Earth warms up – in line with scientific observations and computer simulations that model future climate. 2007 has been a year of climatic crises, especially floods, often of an unprecedented nature… The total number of natural disasters has quadrupled in the last two decades – most of them floods, cyclones and storms.’ (1)

It certainly sounds like it’s been a bad year for bad weather. While much of the UK was under water during a particularly wet summer, the Oxfam report notes that Africa has suffered its worst floods for three decades, affecting 23 countries and nearly two million people. As of August, 248million people in Asia had been affected by flooding, followed by cyclone Sidr hitting Bangladesh in November, killing an estimated 3,000 people. Two category-five hurricanes hit Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean, with four-fifths of the Mexican state of Tabasco under water at one point. Meanwhile, heatwaves and forest fires affected more than a million people in Greece and Eastern Europe, and severe drought also contributed to fires in Australia and California.

But it is the suggestion that there are now four times as many disasters per year as there were in the early 1980s that has grabbed the media’s attention. Between 1980 and 2006, according to the Oxfam report, the number of floods and cyclones quadrupled from 60 to 240 a year, while the number of earthquakes remained approximately the same, at 20 per year. The report suggests that over the past two decades, the number of people annually affected by disasters has increased from an average of 174million to 254million. It notes that ‘small- and medium-scale disasters are occurring more frequently than the kind of large-scale disasters that hit the headlines’, but, if these disasters occur close together in time or location, they can merge to produce a ‘mega disaster’.

Much of this seems to be down to definition. For example, the Oxfam figures are based on statistics from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) which seems to take a fairly promiscuous approach to ‘disasters’. An event qualifies as a ‘disaster’ for the CRED statistics if one of the following applies: 10 or more people are killed; 100 or more are affected; there is a state of emergency declared; a call for international assistance is made. A ‘small- to medium- disaster’ involves up to 50 deaths, affects up to 150,000 people, or causes $200million in economic losses.

What the Oxfam report fails to mention is the caution that the CRED itself places on historical trends in disaster statistics (2). There are good reasons to suggest that the statistics may largely reflect increased reporting of disasters rather than an increase in the occurrence of disasters. Firstly, improvements in telecommunications and the media mean we are more likely to hear about disasters. Secondly, there are more agencies dedicated to working in disaster zones. Thirdly, as insurance claims become more common, so insurance companies have become more and more likely to report and document disasters.

Two graphs from a CRED report in 2004 make these trends clear. The first graph shows who is reporting disasters:

Reporting sources of natural disasters: 1974 – 2002.
(Source: CRED)

The red line is the total number of disasters reported – and there has, indeed, been a steep rise. However, the big changes in recent years come from insurance companies (blue line) and specialised agencies (green line). Reports of disasters from humanitarian and disaster agencies (pink line) and governments (orange line) go up and down, but overall haven’t changed that much.

The second graph shows the proportions of disasters reported by scale over the past century:

Proportion of large disasters over total reported natural disasters: 1900 – 2003 by decade. (Source: CRED)

The blue areas represent small- and medium-scale disasters, the red represents large disasters. As can be seen, reporting of smaller disasters has increased greatly so that in the current century, over half the disasters reported are small- or medium-scale. Leaping to the conclusion that we are seeing an epidemic of weather-based disasters therefore seems premature.

There is another series of statistics on disasters, issued by the insurance company Swiss Re. Its annual reports on disasters have been available online for the past decade (3). From these, it is possible to get an alternative take on the number of flood, storm, fire, drought and extreme cold events, and the number of deaths-by-disaster over the past 10 years. If there was a strong upward trend, we would expect to see it here, too:

While over the course of the decade, the average number of disastrous events does appear to have gone up, it is nothing like the dramatic increase the Oxfam figures describe. Moreover, given increasing wealth and population, the chances of an event hitting an area with sufficient population, or causing enough economic damage, to qualify as a disaster may well have increased even if the weather itself hasn’t changed much.

Perhaps more important than the issue of whether and why these events are occurring is the question: what impact are they having? One way their impact can be measured is through looking at death tolls. (This is not to suggest, however, that life is dandy for those left behind: disasters leave a legacy of economic disruption, which is often a severe blow, particularly in poor countries where survival is difficult at the best of times.) Death tolls seem to be extremely variable, but in the current century they don’t seem to have changed greatly:

Deaths from earthquakes, on average, seem to outweigh deaths from weather-related events – even when the massive death toll from 2004, which includes the earthquake and tsunami in South Asia, is ignored. (Earthquake deaths averaged about 46,000 per year including 2004 and about 20,000 per year excluding 2004; deaths from weather-related disasters average at about 18,000 a year.) And the average annual death toll from all the natural disasters listed by Swiss Re over a 10-year period – even including the 2004 tsunami – is around 65,000 people. That is a terribly tragic loss of life. It would seem that the risk of dying in a noteworthy natural disaster is about 100,000-to-one for the world’s six billion-plus people; more prosaic causes of death, including from easily curable diseases and a lack of clean water, have a far more devastating impact around the world.

What the Oxfam report really reveals is how climate change has become the only debate in town. The demand for development has been placed on the back burner, replaced by an overarching concern about carbon emissions. In fairness to Oxfam, the report makes quite clear that natural disasters have a disproportionate impact on the developing world, while emergency aid is extremely variable and tends to focus on high-profile disasters. The report makes some sensible proposals on improving the aid system and increasing the resilience of societies to sudden shocks.

Nonetheless, it seems the Oxfam report hit the headlines because it chimes with our doom-mongering times: that is, it seems to have dramatically overstated the number and impact of serious disasters in recent years. For example, there is a sharp contrast between the worst floods in living memory in the UK this year – which caused a handful of deaths and led to a depressing clearing-up operation – and floods that occur in the developing world, which cause many more deaths and societal dislocation that can last for months and even years. This disaster disparity demonstrates the need for rapid development in the infrastructure and wealth of developing nations.

Even relatively simple measures can make a huge difference, as the Oxfam report notes: ‘Bangladesh has made great strides in reducing the impact of the hazards that constantly assail it. In 1991 over 138,000 people perished in a cyclone. Subsequent cyclones – even the devastating cyclone that hit on 15 November [this year], the biggest since 1991 – have killed far fewer people, due to the existence of cyclone shelters and greater community-based preparedness including evacuation plans, early warnings and the mobilisation of volunteers. In the Bangladesh countryside, “raised villages” and flood shelters – artificial mounds the size of soccer pitches to which whole communities can retreat from floods – are fairly common sights. Mozambique too has got steadily better at implementing flood contingency plans, including providing essential services for displaced people (reducing recourse to international assistance).’

In Cuba, the report tells us, things have gone even further: ‘At the national level, Cuba’s disaster legislation, public education on disasters, meteorological research, early warning system, effective communication system for emergencies, comprehensive emergency plan, and Civil Defence structure are important resources in avoiding disaster. At the local level, high levels of literacy, developed infrastructure in rural areas, and access to reliable healthcare are crucial for national efforts in disaster mitigation, preparation, and response.’

Instead of pandering to current obsessions about climate change, then, perhaps Oxfam and other aid agencies should make the argument that development, not carbon counting, is key to freeing people from the occasional tyranny of natural disasters. It is only through development that socities can make themselves resilient to extreme weather, and also raise their horizons to more than surviving the next flood or storm. Today, the exaggerated notion that disasters are the fault of man, with his continual carbon-emitting, suggests that meaningful development and industrialisation will only make matters worse. By focusing heavily on climate change, charities like Oxfam ensure that their reports make the front pages – but at the same time they implicitly undermine the case for sweeping development around the globe.

That the goal of development is now deemed to be unrealistic – or worse, undesirable – is the real disaster of modern times.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor at spiked.

(1) Climate Alarm, Oxfam, 25 November 2007

(2) Thirty years of natural disasters 1974-2003: The numbers, CRED, 2004

(3) sigma report archive, Swiss Re

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Topics Science & Tech


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