By Keerthana Chavaly
A survey conducted by The Economist shows that though the frequency of natural disasters has been increasing, the number of fatalities (adjusted for population) has decreased. The survey reveals that natural disasters have more than quadrupled in number since 1970. In 1970, the average number of natural disasters was 78, which increased to 348 in 2004.
Considering the current state of the United States of America and South Asia, which have been devastated by Hurricane Harvey and floods respectively, the report offers useful insights. Hurricane Harvey and the South Asian floods have led to landslides, flooded roads, stoppage of electricity supply, destruction of farmland, a shutdown of transport and over 1,200 deaths.
Technological advancement has reduced casualties
Even with such a high frequency and adverse effects of disasters, the survey by The Economist shows that the number of resultant deaths has decreased. It reported that “the trend in death rates is clearly downward”. In fact, according to Dr James Daniell, a risk engineer from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), “Relative to population, death tolls have decreased significantly from 1900-2015.”
The reduction in the number of fatalities can be attributed to the advancement of technology and science. There exists effective tracking technology, aided by satellites and surface networks, that warns disaster monitoring agencies. With better planning and technology, evacuations are much more efficient now than they were three decades ago. Further, information dissemination has vastly improved. Television, radio and social media have played a significant role in warning people about impending disasters.
Most disasters are man-made
The majority of natural disasters are not caused by global warming, according to scientists, including NASA. Instead, a major contributing cause is human activities. Climatic disasters like hurricanes and typhoons can be attributed to global warming. However, geophysical disasters like landslides and earthquakes are mainly due to man-made factors. The construction of dams and dykes, urbanisation in crowded areas, and increase in population—all contribute to flash floods and landslides.
While natural disasters do not cause as many casualties as they used to, the economic cost of these disasters has increased drastically—from $528 billion in 1981-1990 to $1.2 trillion in 2001-2010. This is because development and industrialisation are taking place in high-risk areas, along fault lines and in tropical countries. These areas are susceptible to calamities. One example is that of the United States of America, which is prone to forest fires. A greater number of houses, constructed in forests due to increasing population, made wildfires in Texas (2011) more destructive.
Failure of conventional flood control
Thailand’s chief development areas are along Bangkok and the Chao Phraya River—both areas are most prone to flooding. Even though dykes were constructed to prevent flooding in these areas, they are not very helpful. Dykes raise water levels and thus increase chances of flooding elsewhere. In fact, many preventive measures taken against natural calamities, in reality, aggravate disasters. The Guardian reported that the recent floods in Mumbai were caused due to “unabated construction on floodplains and coastal areas, as well as storm-water drains and waterways clogged with plastic garbage, have made the city increasingly vulnerable to storms.”
An alternative answer for reducing economic losses would be to follow the example of the Netherlands. Susceptible to floods, the country launched a project called “Room for the River” in 2007. In this, dykes are being removed, lowered or moved further inland to allow more space for water and to convert certain lands into floodplains. Fields and farms are purposely being exposed to floods (flood water is a natural source of irrigation). Riverbeds are being deepened.
The number of fatalities caused by natural disasters may be decreasing. However, unless a dramatic change is made in the way precautions are taken, the frequency and economic cost of disasters will only increase.
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