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  • Antonio Gomez Fortuna

HOW “NATURAL” ARE NATURAL DISASTERS?

This post tries to understand how "natural" natural disasters are, analyzing the mutual impacts between disasters, exposure, vulnerability, and climate change, incorporating globalization as an interfering element contributing to slow-onset disasters.




The current policies recognize the links between disasters and Poverty. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 and The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development give direction to reduce the impact of disasters while also addressing the underlying drivers of disaster risk. The hazard event is not the sole driver of risk. There is high confidence that the levels of adverse effects are in good part determined by the vulnerability and exposure of societies and social-ecological systems (IPCC SREX, Cardona et al 2012, p69).


Exposure


Exposure refers to the inventory of elements in an area in which hazard events may occur. Hence, if population and economic resources were not located in (exposed to) potentially dangerous settings, no problem of disaster risk would exist. (IPCC SREX, Cardona et al 2012, p69).



The early inhabitants took measures to reduce or mitigate their risks – communities along rivers built levees; those along sea coasts constructed sea walls and jetties; farmers placed their houses and sowed their crops upon the fertile slopes of actives volcanoes.


From 2.5 billion people in 1950 to an estimated 7.7 billion people worldwide in 2019, the projections indicate that the global population could grow to around 8.5 billion in 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050, and 10.9 billion in 2100. The 47 least developed countries are among the world's fastest-growing – many are projected to double in population between 2019 and 2050. (United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2019). World Population Prospects 2019: (ST/ESA/SER.A/423).


As the population and size of the settlements grow, the assumed risk becomes more and more concentrated, and more people are affected by disasters.





The overall rates by which people have relocated from rural areas into cities (urbanization) have continued to increase. Rising populations in almost all countries of the world amplify the urbanization effect. In recent decades, the world has been urbanizing rapidly. In 1950, only 30 percent of the world's population lived in urban areas, a proportion that grew to 55 percent by 2018. (United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2019). World Population Prospects 2019: (ST/ESA/SER.A/423).






The exposure in coastal areas has also increased dramatically. Around 10% of the world's population live in coastal areas less than 10m above sea level, and about 2,4 billion people-40% of the world's population- within 100 km. of the coast.


The exponential population growth and concentration of risk and exposure would explain the increase of disasters and support O'Keefe theory.


However, the evidence for rapid climate change is compelling and would contradict O'Keefe's statements. Climate change is a long-term change in the average weather patterns that define Earth's local, regional and global climates. These changes have a broad range of observed effects that are synonymous with the term. Climate data records provide evidence of climate change key indicators, such as global land and ocean temperature increases; rising sea levels; ice loss at Earth's poles and in mountain glaciers; frequency and severity changes in extreme weather such as hurricanes, heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, floods and precipitation; and cloud and vegetation cover changes (NASA – Global Climate Change).








The planet's average surface temperature has risen about 0.9 degrees Celsius since the late 19th century. The oceans have absorbed much of this increased heat, with the top 700 of the ocean showing warming of more than 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969, and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass. The global sea level rose about 20cm in the last century. However, the rate in the last two decades is nearly double that of the last century and is accelerating slightly every year (NASA – Global Climate Change).


Vulnerability


Vulnerability refers to the propensity of exposed elements such as human beings, their livelihoods, and assets to suffer adverse effects when impacted by hazard events (IPCC SREX, Cardona et al 2012, p69).


The importance of the social sphere in disaster risk analysis has been present in the academic literature since the 1960s. In comparison, the policy and practice acknowledgment of the mutual impacts between disasters and Poverty has only very recently been achieved since the late 1990s (Shefali Juneja, 2008). There was explicit policy recognition of the links between disasters and Poverty in 2000 when the World Bank released its report on 'Managing disaster risk in emerging economies' and stated that a major development imperative was to reduce disasters in order to reduce Poverty (Shefali Juneja, 2008)


The Sendai Framework is an example of the change in policy and acknowledgment of the social sphere as a driver of disaster risk. The Sendai Framework seeks to reduce existing disaster risk by implementing integrated and inclusive economic, structural, legal, social, health, cultural, educational, environmental, technological, political, and institutional measures. The idea is to prevent and reduce hazard exposure and vulnerability to disaster, increase preparedness for response and recovery, and thus strengthen resilience (The Sendai Framework 2015-2030, UNDRR).




Torsten Welle and Joern Birkman, in "The World Risk Index – An Approach to Assess Risk and Vulnerability on a Global Scale," assess risk and vulnerability towards natural hazards on a country scale. For Torsten Welle and Joern Birkman, vulnerability is within the societal sphere, comprising susceptibility, coping capacity, and adaptative capacity. The World Risk Index gives particular importance to vulnerability. Calculated using 28 indicators, five refer to the natural hazard sphere, and 23 correspond to the societal sphere.





UNISDR with UNDP/BCPR and partners in Africa captures the risk-poverty link: "increased poverty in Africa means increased disaster risk." (2004:1). It suggests that because the poor have few options regarding where to live and survive, they are most exposed and vulnerable to disasters. The poor have few options regarding where to live and how to survive; they are most exposed and vulnerable to disasters. Poverty creates migration patterns where vulnerable people accept hazard exposure as the cost of achieving an urban location that provides access to employment and services (Shefali Juneja, 2008).





As stated by O'Keefe in the paper "Taking the "naturalness" out of natural disasters," there are structural imbalances between rich and "poor" countries. The economic "development" of undeveloped countries can affect natural systems, provoking "underdevelopment, " thus increasing vulnerability. The price of west development is marginalization. It seems clear that vulnerability is induced by socio-economic conditions that man can modify. (O'Keefe et al. (1976).


However, it is also necessary to consider the underlying drivers for the increase in vulnerability of poor communities. Evidence suggests migration flows from rural to urban areas are provoked by the change in weather patterns. Again, climate change plays a vital role in disasters. Environmentally induced migration increases communities' vulnerability to disasters.


Drought and combinations of drought and hydro-meteorological hazards dominate both mortality and economic losses in sub-Saharan Africa (ICSU ROA, 2006).





In response to growing pressures on landscapes and livelihoods, people are moving, and communities are adapting. Climate change is affecting migration in several distinct ways. Effects of warming and drying reduce the agricultural potential and undermine ecosystem services (water, fertile soil). An increase in weather events, especially heavy precipitation, provokes flash and river floods. Sea level rise destroys extensive and highly productive low-lying areas. People affected by the environmentally induced migration settle in urban centers creating a humanitarian crisis and rapid urbanization that derives from the growth of slums (Forced Migration Review No. 31 - Climate change and displacement. Refugee Studies Centre 2008).


While climate change is undoubtedly a reason for the increase of vulnerability of communities and growth of Poverty, that would not necessarily mean that natural factors determine again disaster risk. The Earth had gone through warm and cool phases in the past and long before humans were around. Forces that contribute to climate change include the sun's intensity, volcanic eruptions, and changes in naturally occurring greenhouse gas concentrations. However, records indicate that today's climatic warming—particularly the warming since the mid-20th century—is occurring much faster than ever before and cannot be explained by natural causes alone. These natural causes are still in play today, but their influence is too small, or they occur too slowly to explain the rapid warming seen in recent decades (NASA Climate Change).


There is strong evidence that humans are contributing to climate change through an abusive depletion of natural resources. Western economies are responsible for most emissions of greenhouse gases, currently following an exponential trendline. Figure 11 shows the evolution of annual CO2 emissions by world region. It is striking to see the evolution and distribution of emissions, being Africa and Asia -the most affected areas by global warming- the ones with the lowest contribution.





The increasing world globalization contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and driver for the underdevelopment of vulnerable communities. Many of the stresses and burdens of unregulated markets have been unloaded onto their individuals and households. It is what Shefali Juneja (2008) calls the "myth of self-regulating markets."


Vulnerable communities are suffering many demand and supply factors that are foreign for them. Bio-fuel production in developed countries increases demand for wheat, soy, maize, and palm oil, leading to a loss of resources for the food chain and rapid deforestation as countries give land to growing crops for biofuels. This loss of resources has regressive effects as lower-income families spend a higher proportion of their food budget.


Speculation by investors is another factor as wheat, and other commodities prices soar due to international investors seeking higher returns for their investments. Food price inflation acts as a tax on the poor and has a regressive effect on income distribution. High food prices worldwide hit the real incomes of the urban poor whose spending on food far outstripped their spending on other items – the World Bank called this effect the "silent tsunami of hunger." (www.tutor2u.net/economics).





Conclusion


Increased accuracy in reporting disaster statistics has helped to provide both greater visualization and confirmation that the nature of disasters is rapidly changing. These changes are generally regarded as a result of human actions and development patterns.


Research and practice support the theory that there exists a strong correlation between disasters and Poverty. It is well documented that those developing countries repeatedly subject to disasters experience stagnant or even negative development rates over time. The aftermath of a disaster exacerbates the debilitating causes of Poverty in developing countries.


While climate change is undoubtedly a reason for the increase of disasters caused by natural hazards, it is crucial to understand that humans are responsible for most of the drivers contributing to climate change.


"Naturalness" should be taken out of natural disasters.

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