World’s Spotlight Misses the True Cost of Disasters

Children waiting out a flood
Weather related disasters cause more than just financial loss for those who are affected.

Photo by David Pham

Don't look to economic losses alone for the scope of devastation wrought by weather-related disasters, as these figures fail to capture the true extent of post-disaster suffering, according to a new Vital Signs Update from the Worldwatch Institute. Weather-related disasters include those caused by heat waves or cold snaps, floods, landslides, avalanches, wildfires, hurricanes, cyclones, typhoons, and winter storms. While these events are often perceived as natural, many human actions, including climate change, can have a hand in their creation.

In 2006, the planet experienced more weather-related disasters than in any of the previous three years, but the economic losses associated with them fell sharply, from $219.6 billion in 2005 to $44.5 billion in 2006, thanks in part to a relatively quiet 2006 Atlantic hurricane season. With only 1 to 3 percent of households and businesses in low-and middle-income countries insured against disasters, compared with 30 percent in high-income countries, the full economic toll from disasters is often difficult to calculate, says Worldwatch Research Associate Zoe Chafe.

"For many victims, the true disaster begins when the storm, earthquake, or flood ends," says Chafe. "Injuries, homelessness, and job losses are rarely included in estimates of what a disaster costs."

Number of people affected by weather related disasters, 1982-2006
The number of people affected by weather-related disasters has risen since 1982

When floods recede or storm clouds dissipate, the real suffering begins for survivors. Nearly 5.4 million people became homeless as a result of a disaster last year, and other "secondary" disasters often follow: sexual harassment in camps, domestic violence, child labor and trafficking, poor resettlement plans, and ongoing disabilities.

While economic losses decreased, human deaths from disasters were up 24 percent in 2006. Floods, which affected 87 countries, were responsible for more deaths than any other weather-related disaster. The Horn of Africa was particularly hard hit by flooding, while Typhoon Saomai became the strongest storm to make landfall over China in 50 years, destroying 50,000 homes and forcing more than a million people to evacuate.

"The media spotlight shines on disaster," writes Chafe. "But that spotlight often fades before we understand the true extent of post-disaster suffering."

Several new initiatives aim to provide quick relief to countries hit by disasters. The United Nations has set up a Central Emergency Response Fund, which pledges to dispatch money and supplies within 72 hours of a disaster, and the World Food Programme recently issued an innovative drought-insurance policy to Ethiopia aimed at decreasing reliance on post-disaster aid.