- NATURAL disasters are increasing at a terrifying rate, startling new
statistics show. Last year, which was by far the worst on record, the world
suffered more than twice as much damage as during the entire decade of
- The figures, which come in the wake of
the Colombian earthquake which killed 1,000 people and left a quarter of
a million homeless, show that hurricanes, storms and droughts have been
striking increasingly frequently and severely over the last decade. And
experts predict that they will get even worse.
- The world's insurance industry, which
compiled the statistics, is deeply alarmed at the development, which could
drive it towards ruin, and is calling for "speedy and comprehensive
- Last year, catastrophes caused by the
weather cost the world $89bn (£55.5bn), well up on the previous record
of $60bn (£37.5) in 1996. They have caused nearly $300bn (£187.5bn)
worth of damage so far in the 1990s, compared with just $50bn (£31bn)
in the whole of the 1980s.
- A new report by Washington's authoritative
Worldwatch Institute says that last year 54 countries suffered from floods,
and 45 from severe drought.
- Bangladesh was hit by the worst flooding
on record, covering two-thirds of the country for more than a month and
making 21 million people homeless.
- Some 2,500 people drowned in the worst
floods in China for 44 years and 56 million had to leave their homes. And
last autumn Hurricane Mitch dumped six feet of rain on parts of central
America within a week, sweeping away nearly three-quarters of the crops
in Honduras and killing more than 10,000 people. The report describes this
as a "storm of geological proportions" and the US government
has described it as the worst disaster ever to hit the western hemisphere.
- Meanwhile, more than 100 people died
in intense heat in Texas and 3,000 perished in the biggest heatwave to
hit India in half a century.
- And, says the report, "a combination
of severe heat, drought and economic mismanagement" cut Russia's harvest
to its lowest level in the past four decades.
- Severe drought led to normally moist
tropical forests drying out, causing massive fires in South-east Asia and
the Amazon. Fires in southern Mexico caused air pollution in Texas and
smoke drifting as far north as Chicago.
- An entire county in Florida had to be
evacuated as a result of another forest fire.
- Klaus Topfer, executive director of the
United Nations Environment Programme, told an international conference
of environment ministers last week: "Human activities are multiplying
the severity and incidence of some of these environmental disasters. It
is disturbing to note how grave the economic and social consequences are
turning out to be."
- Two factors are particularly blamed:
the rapid increase of housing and industry in risky areas such as flood
plains and global warming. Last year was the hottest on record.
- The Worldwatch Institute says: "Higher
temperatures mean that there is more energy driving the earth's climatic
system. This in turn means more evaporation, more destructive storms, and
- The Munich Reinsurance Company, one of
the world's largest, adds: "Changes in the environment and climate
are leading to a greater probability of new extremes in temperatures, precipitation,
water levels, and wind velocity."
- It pleads for "speedy and comprehensive
measures to be taken with a view of man-made changes in the environment".
- Experts expect things to get worse. As
the Independent on Sunday reported in December, top scientists believe
the world is entering a "new era" of hurricanes.
- Note - Missing from this list is the
horrendous ice storm which caused the loss of power in Montreal and Northeast
Canada for weeks during the winter of 97-98. Millions suffered without
heat for weeks. Damages ran into the tens of millions.