Worldwatch Paper #158: Unnatural Disasters

October 2001
Janet N. Abramovitz
ISBN: 1-878071-60-2
62 pages

In the 1990s, natural catastrophes like hurricanes, floods, and fires caused over $608 billion in economic losses worldwide, an amount greater than during the previous four decades combined. But a growing share of this devastation is not 'natural' at all: the effects of a disaster are magnified by ecologically destructive practices, like degrading forests, engineering rivers, filling in wetlands, and destabilizing the climate. And at the same time, continuing human migration to cities and coastal areas is putting more and more people and infrastructure at risk. The projected effects of climate change and sea level rise can only heighten coastal risks.

Over 2 billion people were affected by disasters in the last decade. More people are now displaced by disasters than by conflict. And the economic losses are especially devastating to poor countries, where the losses often represent a large share of the national economy. Losses there are often uninsured.

Disaster mitigation is a very attractive investment; on average every $1 invested in disaster preparedness saves $7 in disaster recovery costs. But investing in mitigation requires governments and communities to give up politically expedient short-term thinking and plan for the long term.

In this Worldwatch Paper, Janet Abramovitz lays out detailed recommendations for changing the way we manage disasters and ourselves. To the extent possible, people and structures should be located out of harm's way, such as avoiding construction on river floodplains. When hazards are unavoidable, buildings can be made to withstand them. Healthy ecosystems should be maintained or restored so they can provide natural disaster protection

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