Disasters Take The
World By Storm
By Geoffrey Lean
Environment Correspondent
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 1980s.
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 measures".
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 more flooding."
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.