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Natural Disasters with Costly Consequences

Three things you need to know:

-- A new report from the UN and World Bank says that with the added impacts of climate change, the annual global cost of natural disasters is estimated to rise to over $200 billion dollars by 2100.

-- Natural disasters are especially catastrophic in the developing world where infrastructure is not as robust.

-- Proper planning and prevention by these countries will significantly reduce the costs and impacts of natural disasters in the future, and this planning can be relatively inexpensive.

The center of Port au Prince after the devestating earthquake in January 2010. The impacts of disasters like this could be lessened by being better prepared, says a new report from the U.N. and the World Bank. Credit: Istockphoto

The debrief:

2010 has been a bad year in terms of natural disasters. Haiti’s earthquake in January is estimated to have killed more than 250,000 people, and affected more than three million. Pakistan’s summer of mass floods killed more than 1,600 people and left tens of thousands homeless. Indonesia, hit by both a volcanic eruption and a tsunami in the past month, lost close to 500 people to both disasters, and thousands are still homeless.  

With global warming, the unpredictability, frequency, and severity of natural disasters is expected to rise, and so is the cost of picking up the pieces after a natural disaster strikes — to a staggering estimate of $200 billion dollars a year, a new report from the U.N. and World Bank suggests.

The report, “Natural Hazards, Unnatural Disasters: The Economics of Effective Prevention,” examines what local governments can do to better ready their region for natural disasters. While local circumstances vary worldwide, they say, the one consistent fact is that with more preparedness, less damage would be done.

Take Pakistan for example. Poorly built bridges and flood control systems, deforestation in the north of the country, and poor urban planning in cities have all contributed to the devastating toll of the floods, the report notes. Going forward, however, if countries like Pakistan combine public and private efforts, think strategically when building future infrastructure, they have the potential to not only save lives, but save money.

One example the report gives are storm water tunnels being built in Kuala Lumpur. These tunnels combine both water drainage and stacked lanes of vehicular traffic. A tri-level tunnel, the system functions in three ways, acting either 100 percent as a traffic tunnel for cars and trucks, 100 percent as a drainage system during massive flooding, or as both during periods of lighter rainfall. The report urges governments to think take Malaysia’s lead by thinking more creatively about solving infrastructure challenges. Instead of having poorly maintained drainage tunnels in addition to separate traffic tunnels, combining them offers a cost-efficient method of maintaining and managing both.

An example of an efficient traffic tunnel and drainage system in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Source: U.N./World Bank.

In another example, they cite how officials dramatically reduced the loss of life and property from cyclones in Bangladesh by building inexpensive storm shelters, making evacuation plans, and investing in weather forecasting.

Why this science matters:

According to the report, “Scientists have identified several catastrophes that a changing climate might trigger: drastic sea level rise, disruption of ocean currents, large-scale disruptions to the global ecosystem, and accelerated climate change, for example, from large releases of methane now trapped by permafrost."

It’s estimated that from 2000 to 2008, governments in developed countries spent 20 percent of all foreign aid on disaster relief. On the other hand, donor agencies spent less than one percent of funds on disaster prevention during the same time period.

The U.N. and World Bank emphasize that it is worthwhile — and even essential — to invest in preventative measures immediately, to avoid paying later. When it comes to natural disasters, these investments have measurable payoffs — less costly economic damages and fewer lives lost.

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