’98 sets new record for ‘unnatural disasters’

This year has already set a new record for economic losses from weather-related disasters, many of which were influenced by human activities, according to preliminary estimates from the Worldwatch Institute.


Storms, floods, droughts, and fires caused at least $89 billion in economic losses during the first eleven months of the year, estimates the Worldwatch Institute (WWI). The 1998 preliminary total represents a 48 percent increase over the previous record of $60 billion in 1996-and far exceeds the $55 billion in losses for the entire decade of the 1980s.

During the first three quarters of 1998, the US insurance industry alone had weather-related claims of more than $8 billion – three times the claims in 1997.

The direct human impact of this year’s weather-related disasters has also been staggering. An estimated 32,000 people have been killed, and another 300 million-more than the population of the United States-have been displaced from their homes or forced to resettle because of extreme weather events.

While meteorologists connect some of the 1998 disasters to El Niño and its aftermath, no previous El Niño has resulted in such devastating consequences. From China to Central America, the evidence is now clear that some of the most damaging weather-related events of 1998 were “unnatural” disasters, says the WWI. Deforestation has left many steep hillsides bare, causing rainfall to run quickly into rivers rather than being absorbed, and often leading to devastating landslides and floods. At the same time, growing population pressures have led many people to settle on vulnerable flood plains and hillsides.

Governments are beginning to recognize the role of human activities in worsening “natural” disasters. In China, where government officials initially denied that the Yangtze floods were anything but natural, the State Council has now recognized the human factor. It has banned logging in the upper Yangtze watershed, prohibited additional land reclamation projects in the river’s flood plain, and earmarked $2 billion to reforest the watershed.

Among the most severe 1998 disasters:

Hurricane Mitch, the deadliest Atlantic storm in 200 years, caused an estimated 11,000 deaths in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Preliminary damage estimates are $4 billion in Honduras (equal to one-third of its GDP) and $1 billion in Nicaragua. As of late November, about half the population of Honduras had been evacuated, 70 percent were without clean water, and the risk of disease is growing.

· The costliest disaster of 1998 was the flooding of China’s Yangtze River, which resulted in 3,700 deaths, dislocated 223 million people, inundated 25 million hectares of cropland, and cost $30 billion. Heavy summer rains are common in southern and central China, but the Yangtze Basin has lost 85 percent of its forest cover to logging and agriculture in recent decades, and the river is heavily dammed, greatly increasing the speed and severity of the resulting runoff.

· Bangladesh suffered its most extensive flood of the century in the summer of 1998. Two-thirds of this low-lying nation at the mouth of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers was inundated for months, 30 million were left temporarily homeless, 10,000 miles of roads were heavily damaged, and the rice harvest was reduced by two million tons. Damage estimates exceed $3.4 billion.

· An ice storm in Canada and New England cost $2.5 billion in January, bringing down thousands of miles of power lines and wiping out the sugar maple industry in some areas.

· Floods in Turkey in June caused $2 billion in damages.

· Floods in Argentina and Paraguay cost $2.5 billion.

· Some 10,000 people were killed by a cyclone in India in June.

· Fires in Siberia burned over 3 million acres of forest.

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