Disaster dice loaded against poorest countries

by Amantha Perera | @AmanthaP | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 6 December 2013 09:45 GMT

Sri Lankans displaced by floods use a raft made of discarded tar barrels to cross a flooded paddy field in the northeastern district of Pollonaruwa. TRF/Amantha Perera

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From 1980 to 2013, half of all deaths from climate-related disasters were recorded in the world's 49 least developed countries

TOKYO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – It is often said that people in the poorest countries suffer most from climate hazards and the effects of a warming world. Now we have the data to prove it.

Between January 1980 and July 2013, climate-related disasters caused 2.52 million deaths around the globe. Of the total, a disproportionately high number of deaths - 1.28 million or 51 percent - were recorded in the world’s 49 least developed countries (LDCs), according to a recent briefing paper from the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

And the situation isn’t getting any better, warned the IIED ahead of last month’s U.N. climate talks.

“Taking just the period from January 2010 to July 2013, deaths from climate-related disasters in LDCs rose to a staggering 67 percent of the world total, reaching 5.5 times the overall global per-capita death rate due to climate-related disasters,” it said.

“In Japan, if a big disaster is looming, then the biggest concern would be economic losses. In a place like Bangladesh or in Africa, the fear would be mass loss of life,” said Venkatachalam Anbumozhi, a capacity-building specialist at the Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI) in Tokyo.

Experts say the high human losses in poor countries are primarily due to the difficulties they face in securing resources – both nationally and from donor governments - to put in place effective measures to reduce the risk of natural disasters and adapt to climate change.

Anbumozhi said developing-state governments should be much more concerned about the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, and take appropriate steps.

“Governments should assess how much they are likely to lose in case of a cyclone or a drought, and take measures as if they were dealing with any other risk – say a possible oil price hike,” he said.

While a certain level of economic losses may be inevitable, lives can be saved with a little bit of forward planning, the ADBI expert said.

He cited the example of the two East Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, which were struck by Cyclone Phailin in early October. Over a million people were moved out of vulnerable areas and the death toll was kept below 50, although government authorities estimate that close to 12 million people may have been affected by the storm.

“We see similar investments in effective adaptation being made in Bangladesh to minimise cyclone impacts, but overall, more needs to be done,” Anbumozhi said.


The IIED paper argued that financial assistance from richer countries to poorer nations to adapt to shifting climate patterns has been woefully inadequate.

Figures from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), suggest the global cost of adapting to climate change impacts will be $86 billion to $109 billion. But wealthy countries have provided only $4 billion annually for such measures in the past three years, the IIED noted.

“This paucity of climate finance contrasts sharply with global defence spending, at more than $4.6 billion a day, as well as national subsidies to fossil fuels, which may have been as high as $1 trillion in 2012 overall,” the paper said.

Scarce climate funds mean that resources may be diverted from longer-term adaptation programmes to meet more pressing needs. In Sri Lanka, for example, low levels of funding have translated into inadequate stocks of emergency response supplies.

In the middle of this year, the Sri Lankan Red Cross said it had stocks to assist 11,000 families. But officials at the aid agency said that ideally they should be in position to help 100,000 families in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.


According to the DesInventar Disaster Information Management System, a global tool to generate inventories of disaster losses, more than 2.6 million Sri Lankans have been affected by disasters in the last two years, more than a tenth of a population of just over 20 million.

Since late 2010, Sri Lanka has suffered major floods in the north and east, which were followed by a severe drought. Extremely strong winds have also affected the south coast, killing more than 60 people.

In 2012, Sri Lanka’s Disaster Management Centre spent around Rs 211 million (around $1.6 million) on disaster prevention measures and emergency relief.

Senaka Basnayake, head of the climate risk management department at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC) in Bangkok, who has worked in Sri Lanka, said the signs are that the island nation needs to boost efforts to reduce the risks of extreme weather events and adapt to longer-term climate shifts.

“We see a strong reason for assessing the future risks, incorporating the changing patterns of weather and climate trends,” he said.

Atiq Kainan Ahmed, another ADPC expert, said there should be stronger links between early warning of potential hazards and emergency response at the local level.

“Building resilience is not just making a single tool available in a community, but working in a concerted manner to connect (disaster) preparedness and response with a simple procedure that people can practice in a sustained manner,” Ahmed said.

But officials at Sri Lanka's Department of Meteorology said they have been unable to implement even urgently needed programmes, such as installing new weather radar systems, due to a lack of funding.

Amantha Perera is a freelance writer based in Sri Lanka. He can be followed on Twitter at @AmanthaP 


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