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One disaster among many

24 May 2013

IT IS, of course, of no comfort to those in Moore, Oklahoma, but Monday's disaster was a relatively minor affair. In 2011, the last year for which figures have been collated, 336 natural disasters were recorded in the world, the lowest figure for a decade (World Disasters Report 2012). Just 31,105 people lost their lives, mostly in the Japanese earthquake (19,846). The previous year, the death toll had been nearly ten times higher, at 297,730, mostly a result of the earthquake in Haiti, which killed 222,570 people. Fatalities are not the only measure of a disaster: 209 million are thought to have been affected by natural disasters in 2011, 70 per cent of them from floods.

After death or injury, the severest effect of a disaster is displacement. An estimated 15 million people are forced from their homes as a result of natural phenomena. A further 15 million move because of development. But these figures are small compared with the toll taken by conflict: 43 million migrants and refugees. If humanity were seriously concerned about the suffering caused, or even if it chose to be cost-effective, it would put far more effort into preventing and resolving conflict.

That, though, would still leave the millions who are prey to acts beyond human control, even were man-made climate-change taken into account. Here, another measure of disasters comes into play. In 2011, the financial cost of the world's disasters was put at $365.6 billion, i.e. $1 billion for every day of the year. Two moderately severe tornadoes that year caused $11 billion and $14 billion. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy caused an estimated $75 billion-worth of damage. Six years earlier, the bill for Hurricane Katrina was $81 billion. Even were it possible to relocate those who live in parts of the world that are susceptible to flooding, earthquakes, or tornadoes, there would still be other disasters, dangerous and unpredictable.

Last week, the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, described the economic losses from global disasters as "out of control". Most of the estimated $2.5 trillion lost through disasters this century was lost by private business. In the search for cheap labour, global conglomerates have become increasingly involved in susceptible areas, especially in south-east Asia, and are therefore putting themselves at ever greater financial risk. Yet these are the firms that baulk at paying the taxes that, indirectly, feed into the international disaster-relief efforts.

The survivors of the Oklahoma tornado can rely on the generosity of their neighbours and the many members of the public who were shocked by the scenes of devastation. But even this sort of generosity tends to melt away once the drama has gone. And even at the low 2011 level, disasters occur almost once a day, mostly in less affluent, less accessible areas. Victims deserve a more global, more organised, and, ultimately, more loving response.

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