Red Cross predicts decade of climate-related

The explosive combination of human-driven climate change and rapidly changing socio-economic conditions will set off chain reactions of devastation leading to super-disasters, predicts a report issued yesterday by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

According to the World Disasters Report 1999, an annual survey of humanitarian trends, last year’s season of natural disasters was the worst on record causing more damage than ever before. This corroborates preliminary figures released at the end of last year by the Worldwatch Institute.
“Everyone is aware of the environmental problems of global warming and deforestation on the one hand, and the social problems of increasing poverty and growing shanty towns on the other. But when these two factors collide, you have new scale of catastrophe,” says Dr. Astrid Heiberg, President of the International Federation.
“At the Red Cross and Crescent alone, we have a huge increase in the number of people needing our assistance due to floods and earthquakes. In the last six years, it has risen from less than half a million to more than five and a half million.”
In 1998, natural disasters created more ‘refugees’ than wars and conflict. The report indicates that declining soil fertility, drought, flooding and deforestation drove 25 million ‘environmental refugees’ from their land and into the already vulnerable squatter communities of fast-growing cities. They represented 58 per cent of total refugee population world-wide.
By analysing the consequences of Hurricane Mitch and the deadly twins, El Nino and La Nina, the report shows compelling evidence of a trend towards weather triggered super-disasters. For example, when the effects of El Nino struck Indonesia, causing the worst drought in 50 years, it set off a chain reaction of crises. The rice crop failed, the price of imported rice quadrupled, the currency dropped by 80 per cent, food riots erupted in the capital, Jakarta, and in the countryside, massive forest fires burning out of control, paralysing parts of the country with a toxic layer of smoke.
The developing world will continue to be hardest hit by the cascading effects of human-driven climate change, environmental degradation and population pressures. Already, 96 per cent of all deaths from natural disasters occur in developing countries. One billion people are living in the world’s unplanned shanty towns and 40 of the 50 fastest growing cities are located in earthquake zones. Another 10 million people live under constant threat of floods.
The report exposes another disturbing trend. As the number of natural disasters increases and losses escalate, the amount of money going into aid activities is dropping. Over the last five years, emergency aid funds have dropped by 40 per cent and many insurance and reinsurance companies have refused to provide coverage in the Caribbean.

Message of hope
There is one message of hope in the report and it lies in the data showing the success of disaster preparedness. In China, a recent analysis of disaster preparedness indicated that $3.5 billion invested in flood control over the last 40 years has saved the economy $12 billion in potential losses.
The report concludes that more people have to change the way they look at disasters and change the system if they want to prevent loss of life and the wasting of donor funds. “The knee-jerk reaction to disaster response is not working,” says Peter Walker, Federation director of disaster policy. “We have to structure and fund our emergency service internationally, the same way we do domestically. We don’t wait until a house catches fire, then raise money for the fire department.” Spend more money before disaster strikes and invest in disaster preparedness, the report advises.

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