Spend money on disasters before they happen

As Earth becomes more populous, casualty lists from natural disasters are likely to climb, experts say. To the agony of all, poor people often bear the brunt of such catastrophes. How can you protect the most needy populations from the ravages of nature?

"Make them rich," says Nicholas Eberstadt, of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He's not being facetious. Well-to-do people in prosperous or poor countries can afford more of the precautions that deflect the blows of nature.

Relief and other humanitarian efforts are essential in the aftermath of disasters. But the long-term cure is to step up foreign aid and other measures to help the world's poor prosper. Prosperous people are more likely to survive and recuperate from earthquakes, floods, mudslides, and other disasters, says Debarati Guha-Sapir, director of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) in Brussels.

As the world's population grows from 6.5 billion today to a forecast 9 billion peak in 2050, future calamities could extract even longer casualty lists than grim recent ones. It's reported that 30,000 may have been lost in the Pakistan-India earthquake earlier this month. Last December's tsunami killed some 226,000 in 12 countries.

But the death toll from natural disasters will not necessarily grow if steps are taken to avert casualties. In fact, the number of disaster deaths has fallen 30 percent over the past two decades, according to an analysis of CRED statistics by Peter Walker Jr. of Tufts University, in Medford, Mass. But in that same time span, the number of people affected negatively (property damage, job loss, etc.) by natural disasters has increased by 59 percent as populations grow or shift to more risk-prone areas in a nation.

CRED research indicates that the reported cost of natural disasters worldwide has soared to about $100 billion per year. It could be twice that amount this year with hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But that trend is in large degree a reporting phenomenon. Damage numbers mostly come from industrial nations with sophisticated insurance and other cost estimates. As Mrs. Guha-Sapir notes, the cost of a destroyed hovel on a Bangladesh mud flat is unlikely to be reported.

Nonetheless, whether the number of deaths from natural disasters will continue to decline remains uncertain.

On the negative side, in the last two decades, the number of people living in earthquake-prone regions has doubled or tripled, says Guha-Sapir. In Pakistan, for example, the population has risen from 37 million in 1950 to 158 million today. It's projected to reach 305 million by 2050.

For the most part, the poor are hit disproportionately when a severe earthquake strikes. Their houses, perhaps built of mud and rocks, fall down easily.

Here's an example: The 1989 earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area caused 63 deaths. Nearly a year earlier, the death toll from a similar-magnitude earthquake in what was then Soviet Armenia, a poor region, exceeded 25,000. As in Pakistan, building construction was often cheap and weak. Strictly enforced building codes could have decreased deaths.

Problems also exist in areas subject to periodic flooding unless safety measures are taken. In Bangladesh, a cyclone swept through the Ganges River delta in the early 1970s, killing hundreds of thousands. Since then, the nation has devised a cyclone-warning system and built huge concrete shelters. Poor farmers, seeking good soil, still work on the mud flats. But casualty rates from cyclones are far, far lower.

Another development that could lead to greater casualties from natural disasters is the increased concentration of people in cities, says Joseph Shamie, research director at New York's Center for Migration Studies. By 2007, for the first time in history, a majority of the world's people will live in urban areas, he notes.

Further, out of choice or necessity, more people are moving into areas subject to hurricanes.

In the United States, the number of people living in coastal counties grew by 35 percent from 1980 to 1993. Today, half of the population lives in these counties. Hurricane-prone Florida now has 17.5 million people, and is projected to have 29 million by 2030, the Census Bureau projects.

"People are taking a chance by living close to the shore," Mr. Shamie says.

Growing pressures of population on land and water resources also heighten the potential for horrific disasters, notes Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute. In Haiti, a growing poor population stripped forests from hillsides for fuel. Catastrophic floods earlier this year were the result.

A combination of drought and overfarming has turned portions of North and West China into deserts. As a result, about 24,000 villages in that area have been abandoned or largely depopulated. China's wheat crop has sunk from 123 million tons in 1998 to 93 million tons this year. In Kazakhstan, half the grain-growing land has been lost since 1980 because of desertification.

In Africa, about 900 square miles of crop land or pasture blows or washes away every year. The leaders of Nigeria and Senegal are talking about planting a three-mile-wide belt of trees across Africa to prevent the Sahara Desert from advancing further southward.

The cost of such fixes is enormous, but not nearly as big as the cost of the disasters they'd avert - as the New Orleans tragedy illustrates. Stronger levees would have been far cheaper.

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