The combination of growing climatic instability, due to global warming, with the concentration of the world's poor in ever more vulnerable places, will set off "chain reactions of devastation", the Red Cross says, in its World Disasters Report for 1999. The report firmly marks last year, the year of Hurricane Mitch, the Afghan earthquake, the Papua New Guinea tidal wave, drought and forest fires around the globe and China's greatest floods, which affected 180m people, as the worst ever for natural calamities. The warmest 12 months on record, 1998 created more refugees - as many as 25 million - than wars and conflicts.
"From tsunamis and earthquakes to floods and famines, mankind is ever more threatened by the forces of nature," says the report. "With almost a billion people now living in unplanned shanty towns, with deforestation wrecking ecological defences against catastrophic natural events, and with global warming making the forces of wind, rain and sun ever harder to predict and counter, the world is at risk as never before."
Even as the report is being published this week, the United Nations is warning that Lake Sarez in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia could burst its banks and flood five countries, producing "the worst natural disaster in human history".
The Red Cross study highlights two environmental problems which are already making natural catastrophes much worse - global warming and the mass felling of forests. Climatic warming, the reality of which is now accepted by the international community, is tending to make extreme weather events, such as hurricanes or droughts, even more intense, and is leading to rising sea levels all around the world.
Deforestation is removing the natural protection that vegetation gives the earth's surface and leading to landslides and much more severe flooding. When these are combined with socio-economic trends, such as the movement of millions of people to the unplanned mega-cities of the developing world, often on vulnerable coastlines, the effect is explosive.
"When these two factors collide, you have a new scale of catastrophe," said Dr Astrig Heilberg, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. "We have a huge increase in the number of people needing our assistance."
The report found evidence of weather-triggered superdisasters by analysing the consequences of Hurricane Mitch, which last November dumped a year's rainfall on Central America in a few hours and produced 10,000 dead and pounds 3.2bnworth of damage, and El Nino, the periodic warming of the Pacific, which produces rainstorms on one side of the ocean, and fierce drought on the other.
When the effects of El Nino struck Indonesia, causing the worst drought in 50 years, it set off a chain reaction of crises, the Red Cross says. The rice crop failed, the price of imported rice quadrupled, the currency collapsed, food riots erupted and thick smoke from massive forest fires paralysed the country.
The report offers a series of menacing statistics: 40 of the world's 50 fastest growing cities are in earthquake zones; half the world's population lives in coastal zones with 10 million people already at constant risk of flooding and desertification could sap more than 40 per cent of the flows of the Indus, Niger and Nile rivers, raising the spectre of water wars. Furthermore, it says, as disasters get worse, emergency aid funds are shrinking and many insurance companies are now refusing to provide cover in risky areas such as the hurricane-ravaged Caribbean.
But the report does offer one message of hope, in showing that disaster preparedness can be successful. In China, a recent analysis indicated that the pounds 2.3bn invested in flood control over the last 40 years has saved the economy pounds 7.7bn in potential losses.Reuse content