In a new study, researchers at the United Nations University (UNU) reveal that the number of people threatened by catastrophic floods is going to increase from one billion today to more than two billion by 2050. And guess who is responsible? Climate change, deforestation, rising sea levels and population growth in flood-prone lands. In other words, ourselves. The study states that 25,000 people are killed each year by floods and other weather-related disasters. The UN experts also say that the yearly costs of these disasters are in the 50 to $60 billion range, mostly in developing countries. This "is roughly equal to the global development aid provided by all donor countries combined." What can we do to reduce the number of deaths? We need to build a greater global capacity to monitor and forecast extreme events in order to devise new warning systems and new planning strategies.
For example, you can see below a map of our world with icons showing the locations of floods observed by NASA satellites between April and June 2004.
You can find the clickable version of this map at the Natural Hazards Flood Page maintained by NASA's Earth Observatory.
Now, let's return to some numbers listed in the UNU study.
Floods presently impact an estimated 520+ million people per year worldwide, resulting in estimates of up to 25,000 annual deaths, extensive homelessness, disaster-induced disease, crop and livestock damage and other serious harm. UNU says unsustainable land use and other human actions aggravate the situation.
The greatest potential flood hazard is in Asia. Every year for the past two decades, more than 400 million people on average have been directly exposed to a flood. Between 1987 and 1997, 44% of all flood disasters worldwide affected Asia, claiming 228,000 lives (roughly 93% of all flood-related deaths worldwide). Economic losses in the region in that decade totaled US $136 billion.
The fast-growing cost to the world economy of floods and other weather-related disasters (now $50 to $60 billion per year, much of it in developing countries) is roughly equal to the global development aid provided by all donor countries combined. The flood-related death toll represents 15% of all natural disaster-related loss of life. Even the most advanced nations are affected: the 2002 floods in Europe killed roughly 100 people, affected 450,000 people and left $20 billion in damages; the US, which suffered 50 deaths and $50 billion in damage in the Mississippi River flood of 1993, has averaged 25 flood deaths annually since the 1980s.
In order to prepare local governments to face such disasters, UNU is opening a new research center today in Bonn, Germany. the Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS). Here are some quotes from its founding director, Dr. Janos Bogardi.
"Most urgently needed to adapt to the growing risk of flood disasters is greater global capacity to monitor and forecast extreme events," Dr. Bogardi says. "Armed with better information, superior early warning systems and infrastructure can be installed, and new planning strategies devised."
"It is also necessary to ensure that increasingly freakish climate variability and the gradual forces of climatic change and deforestation are factored into the total picture," he says.
But financial hurdles remain.
There needs to be a shift in the international mindset -- from reaction and charity to anticipation and preemption, Dr. Bogardi adds. Countries are typically generous with post-disaster relief but less so when it comes to pre-disaster preparedness, spending $100 in relief for every $1 in preparedness.
For more information about the past decades, these Disaster Risk Index Tables (PDF format, 10 pages, 68 KB), covering the period going from 1980 to 2000, contain a global summary for almost all the countries. You'll also find detailed tables for other risks. The countries with the highest risks of being killed by droughts, earthquakes, floods and tropical cyclones are respectively North Korea, Armenia and in Honduras.
Sources: United Nations University, June 13, 2004, via EurekAlert!; NASA's Earth Observatory