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Pacific island states top disaster risk index

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 2 September 2011 12:20 GMT

Four Central American nations are also among those countries most vulnerable to natural hazards and climate change

p> LONDON (AlertNet) - Three Pacific island nations rank among the five countries most at risk of disasters, together with the Philippines and Guatemala, in a new index that measures social vulnerability as well as exposure to natural hazards and climate change.

Vanuatu and Tonga come first and second, with the Solomon Islands in fourth position. These low-lying Pacific island states are in a highly active seismic zone, as well as being under threat from sea-level rise, and judged to be poorly equipped to cope with disasters.

The World Risk Index – developed by the U.N. University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) in Bonn – calculates risk values for 173 countries worldwide.

Besides Guatemala, three other Central American countries - Costa Rica, El Salvador and Nicaragua, which often experience damaging storms, mudslides and droughts - fall in the top 11.

Several Asian nations, including Bangladesh, Cambodia and Timor-Leste, are also seen as very risky. Bangladesh and the Philippines are hit regularly by cyclones and floods, and their coastlines are already being affected by rising sea levels as salt water swamps fields and homes, and seeps into groundwater. 

The index, issued for the first time this year, is based on the premise that the frequency and strength of natural hazards – including earthquakes, storms and floods – do not alone determine how likely a country is to experience disasters. The ranking also takes into account social structures and processes, such as the level of education, poverty, food security and how institutions function.

Those factors shape the extent to which a population is susceptible to disasters, can cope with their aftermath, and adapt to future threats like climate change, says a report presenting the index, published by Alliance Development Works, a coalition of German development and relief agencies.

"The risk that a natural event will develop into a disaster depends only partially on the strength of the event itself. A substantial cause lies in the living conditions of people in the affected regions and the opportunities to quickly respond and help," the report noted. 

"Those who are prepared and who know what to do during an extreme natural event have higher survival chances,” it added. “The countries that anticipate natural hazards, prepare for the consequences of climate change, and provide the necessary financial resources are better equipped for the future."


For example, the Netherlands and Hungary have relatively high exposure to natural hazards and climate change, but thanks to their favourable social, economic and ecological circumstances, they rank 69 and 109 respectively in the risk index.

The report contrasts the earthquakes that hit Haiti in 2010 and Japan in 2011 to demonstrate how social vulnerability makes a difference.

At least 220,000 people died in the 7.0-magnitude quake that hit the impoverished and politically unstable Caribbean nation. But the death toll in the 9.0-magnitude Japan quake and tsunami was far lower, at around 28,000, thanks to its higher coping and adaptive capacities, including better building laws. Haiti ranks 32 in the index and Japan 35.

The report notes that weak governance is one of the major risks with regard to the impact of natural hazards. A key reason why the Haiti quake was so destructive was "the almost complete failure of the Haitian State," meaning it could not protect its people in advance or help them afterwards, it says.

The world's five safest countries are deemed to be Qatar, Malta, Saudi Arabia, Iceland and Bahrain.

Many African countries and some fragile states in other regions, including Afghanistan, are seen as very vulnerable in terms of social factors but are less exposed to hazards, explaining why they appear lower down the list than might be expected.

"The World Risk Report shows the need to focus in the future more on disaster risk reduction than just on humanitarian aid after an extreme event," its editor Peter Mucke, managing director of Alliance Development Works, said in a statement.

"The comprehensive analyses allow to better detect threats and to identify the needs more precisely, as well as to place political demands similarly in affected countries and donor countries."

The report stresses the importance of poverty reduction in lowering disaster risk. Governments should also invest more money and effort in preventing and preparing for disasters. Citizens, in turn, should keep up pressure on their politicians to deliver.

"When required, precautionary measures, protection of vulnerable groups and risk management can be directly implemented by aid agencies without needing to wait for the necessary changes in the policy framework," the report urges.

(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)

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