Natural disasters of 2005 partly man-made says WHO
By Theresa Braine
January 9, 2006
The high death toll in 2005 from tsunamis, hurricanes, typhoons, mudslides, earthquakes, volcanoes, locusts and pandemics can not necessarily be blamed on “natural” disaster, according to the United Nations health agency which today pointed to a complex mix of human and natural factors that led to tragedy in those events.
The UN World Health Organization (WHO) said that routine climate change, global warming influenced by human behavior, socioeconomic factors causing poorer people to live in risky areas, and inadequate disaster preparedness and education on the part of governments as well as the general population were part of that mix.
“I don’t like to use the term ‘natural disasters,'” said Ciro Ugarte, Regional Advisor for Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) in Washington DC, explaining that these events would not have such a devastating effect on people’s lives without other factors at play.
The year 2005 did see the aftermath of the 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami waves in Asia, as well as hurricanes in central and north America, notably Katrina, which triggered flooding in the United States city of New Orleans, and the 8 October earthquake in Pakistan and India. The year also saw famine after crops were destroyed by locusts in Niger and a volcano in El Salvador that was followed by Hurricane Stan.
Tsunami refugee camp outside Chennai, India
This year witnessed the largest financial losses ever as a result of weather-related natural disasters linked by many to human action, more than $200 billion compared to $145 billion in 2004, the previous record, according to statistics presented to the United Nations Climate Change Conference currently meeting in Montreal, Canada.
Two new reports from government agencies say that 2005 is second warmest year on record. The first from NOAA focuses primarily on weather in the United States, while the second, from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) looks at global temperatures and weather events. The WMO says that 2005 is currently the second warmest year on record, after 1998. Averaged separately for both hemispheres, 2005 surface temperatures for the northern hemisphere (0.65° C above 30-year mean) are likely to be the warmest and for the southern hemisphere (0.32° C above 30-year mean), the fourth warmest in the instrumental record from 1861 to the present.
Amid predictions that by 2010 the world will need to cope with as many as 50 million people escaping the effects of creeping environmental deterioration, United Nations University experts say the international community urgently needs to define, recognize and extend support to this new category of refugee’.
The kind of devastation seen on the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Katrina may be a small taste of what is to come if emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2 ) are not diminished soon, warns Dr. Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology. If current trends continue, some 5 trillion tons of carbon is expected to be spewed into the atmosphere over the next three centuries from human fossil-fuel burning. It will have serious consequences by warming the planet on average between 7 and 20 degrees Fahrenheit and turning the oceans acidic.
The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season is the busiest on record and extends the active hurricane cycle that began in 1995 — a trend likely to continue for years to come. The season included 26 named storms, including 13 hurricanes in which seven were major (Category 3 or higher).
From January to October 2005, over 97,000 people were killed in disasters globally, with some 88,000 of those deaths resulting from so-called natural disasters, according to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), a WHO institution that operates a global disaster database in Belgium. Such deaths have been increasing since 1975.
However, natural phenomena do not always generate human disasters. Dr. Ugarte of PAHO noted that in 2005, several earthquakes that struck in South America were of a higher magnitude than the one that devastated northern Pakistan and parts of India in October, but these hit sparsely populated areas and therefore caused less damage. The same goes for several tsunamis in 2005 which were not deemed “disasters” because they didn’t endanger anyone, Dr. Ugarte said.
Natural phenomena are likely to affect more people because the global population has increased to about 6.5 billion people and is projected to reach 9.1 billion people in 2050, according to UN figures.
One of the earliest recorded disasters, the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, buried the ancient Roman city of Pompeii killing about 10 000 people. Today, 2 million people live within its possible range.
Another important factor is environmental degradation, according to Marko Kokic, spokesperson for WHO’s Health Action in Crisis Department, who said natural events in Caribbean and Indian Ocean lands were amplified because of deforestation and stripping of vegetation from coastlines.
Disasters are also a consequence of development and industrialization, he said. In Europe, experts believe that countries such as France and Germany are more adversely affected by floods today because major rivers, such as the Rhine, have been straightened to ease commercial traffic.
Global warming as well as routine, cyclical climate changes are causing a higher number of strong hurricanes in the Caribbean, meteorologists say. Add to that the increasing number of people living in substandard housing and on coastlines, as well as the destruction in a crisis of hospitals and other essential infrastructure and you have the potential for more devastating disasters than a few decades ago, WHO concludes.
This is a modified news release from the UN.