Vital Signs Brief 98-5
by Janet N. Abramovitz and Seth Dunn

return to [Combustion in the RainForest]

Worldwatch Briefings: "An Environmental Revolution", "Matters of Scale: Can We Make the Leap?", "Global Environment Reaches Dangerous Crossroads"

"Raw Materials Use and the Environment", "Facts About Our Material World", "World is Economically Richer and
Environmentally Poorer"

With one month to go, 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 worldwide 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. 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=F1o and its aftermath, no previous El Ni=F1o has resulted in such devastation.

Among the most severe 1998 disasters:

--Hurricane Mitch, the deadliest Atlantic sttorm in 200 years, caused an estimated 11,000 deaths in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Preliminary damage estimates are $4 billion in Honduras (equal to one-third of its GDP) and $1 billion in Nicaragua. As of late November, about half the population of Honduras had been evacuated, 70 percent were without clean water, and the risk of disease is growing. Nearly 100 bridges were wiped out as were many of the roads needed to supply relief to the victims. About 95 percent of the crops were destroyed in a nation where nearly two-thirds of the workers are employed in agriculture.

Mitch hit a region that was ecologically vulnerable. Central American nations have experienced some of the highest rates of deforestation in the world - losing some 2-4 percent of their remainiingg forest cover each year. Honduras alone had already lost half of its forests. Just a few months ago, fires burned about 11,000 square km in the region. Then came Mitch. Denuded hillsides washed away, taking homes, farms, roads, and bridges with them.

--The costliest disaster of 1998 was the ffloooding of China's Yangtze River, which resulted in 3,700 deaths, dislocated 223 million people, inundated 25 million hectares of cropland, and cost $30 billion. Heavy summer rains are common in southern and central China, but the Yangtze Basin has lost 85 percent of its forest cover to logging and agriculture in recent decades, wetlands have been drained, and the river heavily dammed, greatly increasing the speed and severity of the resulting runoff. Historical records show that in earlier centuries flooding was a once every 20 year event; now floods happen 9 out of 10 years.

--Bangladesh suffered its most extensive ffloood of the century in the summer of 1998. Two-thirds of this low-lying nation at the mouth of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers was inundated for months, 30 million were left temporarily homeless, 10,000 miles of roads were heavily damaged, and the rice harvest was reduced by two million tons. Damage estimates exceed $3.4 billion. Logging upriver in the Himalayas of north India and Nepal exacerbated the disaster, as did the fact that the region's rivers and floodplains have been filled with silt and constricted by development. Climate change and rising sea levels are projected to make Bangladesh even more vulnerable to flooding in the future.

--Other parts of the world were also strucck by devastating weather-related disasters in 1998. An ice storm in Canada and New England cost $2.5 billion in January, bringing down thousands of miles of power lines and wiping out the sugar maple industry in some areas. Floods in Turkey in June caused $2 billion in damages, and floods in Argentina and Paraguay cost $2.5 billion. Some 10,000 people were killed by a cyclone in India in June, while vast fires in Siberia burned over 3 million acres of forest.

The "hand of man" can be seen in many of these disasters. The loss of forests and wetlands, which normally intercept rainfall and allow it to be absorbed by the soil, permits water to rush across the land, carrying valuable topsoil with it. As the runoff races across deforested land, it causes floods and landslides strong enough to wipe out roads, farms, and fisheries far downstream.

Paradoxically, the lack of trees also exacerbates drought in dry years by allowing the soil to dry out more quickly. The record-breaking fires in Indonesia and Brazil in 1997 and 1998 occurred in tropical forests that are normally too moist to burn. But when fragmented by logging and agricultural clearing, these forests dried out to the point where deliberately set fires were able to spread quickly out of control. Fire claimed over 52,000 square km in Brazil and 20,000 sq. km in Indonesia. The economic toll in Indonesia was estimated at $4.4 billion.

As 1998 comes to a close, governments are beginning to recognize the role of human activities in worsening "natural" disasters. In China, where government officials initially denied that the Yangtze floods were anything but natural, the State Council has now recognized the human factor. It has banned logging in the upper Yangtze watershed, prohibited additional land reclamation projects in the river's flood plain, and earmarked $2 billion to reforest the watershed.

Unless ravaged nations rebuild along a path of sustainable development that emphasizes restoring and maintaining healthy ecosystems, they risk even greater exposure to the devastation of unnatural disasters in the future. The pressures of population growth and economic instability complicate efforts to control harmful development. Brazil, for example, is under heavy pressure to reduce its budget deficit and has cut back on its already minimal efforts to control logging and mining in the Amazon.

The need for healthy ecosystems is further underscored by the accelerated climate change projected by scientists in the coming decades, due to the failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is likely to lead to more severe storms, floods, and droughts in many regions. Munich Re, one of the world's leading insurance companies, issued a report in late 1998 suggesting that in the years ahead, large areas of the world, including the southeastern United States and Indonesia, may become virtually uninsurable.