Record Year for Weather-Related Disasters

by Janet N. Abramovitz and Seth Dunn

With one month remaining, 1998 has already set a new record for economic losses from weather-related disasters. According to preliminary estimates by the Worldwatch Institute, storms, floods, droughts, and fires caused at least $89 billion in economic losses during the first eleven months of the year.

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. (Graph and Data Table of the loss estimates for individual years) During the first three quarters of 1998, the U.S. 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 in 1998.

From China to Central America, the evidence is now clear that some of the most damaging weather-related events of 1998 were "unnatural" disasters. 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. While meteorologists connect some of the 1998 disasters to El Ni