Global disasters cause spiral of decline: Red Cross says crises such as floods and earthquakes are exacerbated by anarchy. Steve Connor reports

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The Independent Online
DISASTERS are affecting an ever-increasing number of people in the world, causing a spiral of decline from which they are unlikely to recover, according to an analysis of humanitarian crises by the Red Cross.

An extra 10 million people are added on average each year to the list of individuals affected by disasters, which are becoming more complex and intransigent.

The latest disaster, an earthquake in Algeria early yesterday morning, killed nearly 150 people, injured a futher 289 and made up to 10,000 people homeless.

Greater industrialisation is leading to an increase in disasters caused by technological failure, such as Bhopal in India in 1984, Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union in 1986 and Guadalajara in 1992, where an explosion in a petrol station pipeline killed more than 200 Mexicans.

But civil strife following a natural disaster is also on the increase, especially on the African continent where the spread of arms is undermining law and order, leading to virtual anarchy and exacerbating famine and drought.

The trend in the number of people caught up in disasters over the past quarter century has been 'ever upwards', warns the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in its World Disasters Report 1994.

'Today, even if those caught up in war are excluded, something in the region of 250 to 300 million people a year are affected by disasters, and this figure is growing at a rate of around 10 million a year,' the report says.

Peter Walker, head of the disaster policy department at the Red Cross federation, said the nature of disasters had changed in recent years. This was partly due to an increase in poverty, and in population density.

'We are now seeing a second style of disaster. In the past an earthquake or flood were blips on the road to recovery. We are now getting total disasters where there is no chance of a return to normality because there is often no normality to return to.'

Dr Walker said that natural disasters often triggered a much larger crisis brought about by people being already vulnerable.

The report highlights the case of north-east Brazil, where four years of low rainfall have created the prospect of a severe disaster among 12 million people in the region.

'But as so often in supposedly 'natural' disasters such as drought, the lack of rains in north-eastern Brazil is merely the trigger for a disaster which could not happen if the people were not already vulnerable for a range of social, environmental and economic reasons,' the report says.

George Weber, Secretary General of the Red Cross federation, says in the report's introduction that the collapse of the Soviet Union and war in the former Yugoslavia have led to a swing in disasters from south to north.

'More worrying still is the pervasive nature of today's disasters in the north. In India's floods or famine in the Sahel, emergency relief . . . is usually delivered to around 10 per cent of the population. In parts of the Caucasus or the Balkans, however, up to 40 per cent of a country's population may be in need of assistance.'

Dr Walker said the upsurge in violence in the world is hindering efforts to contain disasters. Thirty years ago there were 10 on-going wars; now there are about 50.

'Powerful automatic weapons are freely available in parts of Africa . . . killing power is available to anyone who is disaffected. We're getting a level of anarchy we've not had in the past,' he said.

On top of this is the spread of cheap, lethal anti-personnel mines. A dollars 3 mine may cost up to dollars 1,000 to remove, the report says. It says there are 100 million mines scattered across 50 countries, and 100 million more in storage.

Such mines 'blow off the hands of children who pick them up and the feet of mothers who tread on them. They render farmland unsafe to plough and roads impossible to use', the report says.

World Disasters Report 1994; International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies; pounds 33.25 (0800 899832).

(Photograph omitted)

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