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Raghav Gaiha & Ganesh Thapa: Mitigating the impact of natural disasters

Raghav Gaiha & Ganesh Thapa  |  New Delhi 

A 5 percentage point reduction in the proportion of poor countries would reduce disaster-related deaths by roughly a similar amount.
Natural disasters affect household welfare in three distinct ways: loss of physical integrity, assets, and income. Injuries, fatalities and health epidemics compromise the quality of life. Loss of assets is pervasive. Houses, for instance, are highly vulnerable to the damaging impact of earthquakes, high winds, volcanic eruptions, landslides and floods. Loss of income from flooded arable land, damaged food crops and reduced agricultural production may be temporary or of a long-term nature.
Few would question the rising cost of natural disasters "" especially in developing countries. The tsunami in the Indian Ocean in December 2004 killed over 250,000 people, followed by an earthquake in northern Pakistan that killed tens of thousands and left over 3 million homeless. Meanwhile, poor harvests and pests threaten famine in the Sahel and southern Africa. The overall picture of disaster impacts is one of large-scale human suffering, loss of lives, and a precipitous rise in financial costs.
A recent study ("The Death Toll from Natural Disasters: The Role of Income, Geography, and Institutions" by Matthew E Kahn, Review of Economics and Statistics, vol. 87, no. 2, 2005), based largely on data compiled by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) "" the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT) "" reports the following findings:
  • Income does not have an important role in explaining differences in the occurrence of natural disasters.
  • Richer nations, however, suffer fewer deaths from such disasters.
  • Geography has an important role in explaining cross-national patterns. Countries in Asia, for example, suffer more deaths from natural disasters than those in Africa.
  • Institutional quality matters too. Democracies, for example, suffer fewer deaths from disasters.
  • In a more detailed investigation ("Natural Disasters, Vulnerability and Mortalities in Asia and the Pacific" by R Gaiha and G Thapa, 2006, Rome: International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), draft), some of these findings are confirmed while others are modified or extended.
    As shown in Table 1, the highest proportion of natural disasters occurred in the lower-middle income countries, followed by the low income and high income OECD countries. Both the upper-middle income and high income non-OECD countries accounted for a low share of disasters in 1985-94 "" barely 10 per cent. The combined share of low income and lower-middle income countries "" already high "" rose over the period 1995-2004.
    In 1985-94, low income and lower-middle income countries accounted for over 95 per cent of deaths due to natural disasters, while high income OECD and non-OECD countries accounted for less than 2 per cent. The former, however, continued to account for a slightly lower but the bulk of disaster-related deaths in 1995-04 (about 88 per cent).
    In the aggregate sample, deaths per disaster rose (from 196 deaths per disaster to 255 deaths) during 1995-04. In fact, during the 1990s, there was a steady increase in the number of deaths per disaster. While the deadliness of disasters remained highest in low income countries (over 400), it rose sharply in lower-middle income, upper-middle income and high income OECD countries. However, if disaster-related deaths are divided by the population of a country, all groups except high income non-OECD countries recorded an increase. So the evidence points to disasters becoming deadlier in a large part of the world in recent years.
    Some of the deadliest natural disasters ranked by deaths per episode in 1985-94 were: volcanoes, earthquakes, famines, wind storms and floods. Substantially higher deaths were caused by wave surges and famines, while fewer deaths resulted from wind storms and earthquakes, in the more recent period (1995-04).
    Although there were significant differences in the determinants of vulnerability to natural disasters of different types over the periods analysed (that is, 1985-94 and 1995-04), these related mainly to geo-physical characteristics (for instance, the frequency of disasters was higher in countries with a higher elevation), climatic conditions, size of a country, its population, and other regional characteristics. The number of deaths depended on the frequency of disasters, geo-physical factors, interaction of democracy and disasters in the current period (that is, the larger the number of deaths in the current period, the greater is the protective role of democracy in averting deaths), level of income of a country, and whether a country was a new state.
    Assuming that the proportion of low income countries reduces by 5 percentage points and that they move up into the next category of lower-middle income countries (their average per capita income rises from $1,312 to $4,513), our simulations show that disaster-related deaths are lower by less than 5 percentage points.
    Although there is a tendency to be dismissive of disaster prevention, it is arguable that some disasters (for instance, droughts and famines) are avoidable through preventive action (for instance, droughts could be avoided through better utilisation of watersheds). If the number of current period disasters is reduced by 5 and 10 percentage points from the mean in 1995-2004, the reduction in deaths is 34 percentage points, and 56 percentage points, respectively. So the pay-off to disaster prevention is likely to be substantial. That a $40-billion investment in disaster preparedness, prevention and mitigation could help avoid global losses of $280 billion in the 1990s "" as assessed in the World Disasters Report of 2001"" is thus far from an overstatement.
    The views expressed here are personal. Raghav Gaiha is Professor of Public Policy, Faculty of Management Studies, University of Delhi, and Ganesh Thapa is Regional Economist, IFAD, Rome

    First Published: Sat, April 08 2006. 00:00 IST