Disasters prevent sustainable development

Residents of the Kurigram District in the Northeast of Bangladesh inspecting the flood damages after heavy rainfalls in September 2010. In the region more than 140,000 persons were affected.

Over the last few decades, there has been a strong increase in the number and the severity of destructive natural events. Developing countries are particularly affected by this increase. It is not just because of their geographical location that developing countries are particularly hard hit by such events. Poor people lack the resources to protect themselves effectively against disasters and their aftermath.

In industrialised countries, much of the physical damage can be cushioned by insurance coverage, assistance from the government and the willingness of the public to make donations. Developing countries, on the other hand, are usually unable to handle an emergency without external support.

In addition, extreme weather events frequently lead to a series of knock-on problems; poverty, undernutrition, homelessness, epidemics, migration and even armed conflict can be triggered or aggravated. The influence of disasters on a country's development is therefore a key area of intervention in German development cooperation.

Disaster risk management

The aim of disaster risk management is to prevent disasters and reduce the vulnerability of people, the environment, the economy and local infrastructure to natural events. Steps are taken to increase the resilience of people and institutions so that they are better able to withstand disasters and recover from their aftermath. Disaster risk management covers a wide range of possible measures in areas such as policy, the economy, poverty reduction and social protection, spatial planning and urban development, the environment, education and health.

Extreme natural events are on the increase

The United Nations defines a disaster as "a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society involving widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses and impacts, which exceeds the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources."

Whether or not an extreme natural event, such as a storm or an earthquake, becomes a disaster depends on the level of vulnerability of the society hit by the event. Important factors are political stability, economic capacity, social conditions and the environmental situation.

According to the 2014 annual report of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) of the Belgian University of Leuven, in the 1990s there were still fewer than 300 "natural triggered disasters" a year. Between 2004 and 2013, an average of 384 such disasters was registered. In 2014, researchers observed 324 events worldwide that were judged to be disasters. The economic losses caused by these disasters in 2014 amounted to about 99.2 billion US dollars, an amount that was well below the ten-year average of 162.5 billion US dollars.

According to the 2014 annual report, between 2004 and 2013, an average of 199.2 million people were directly affected by extreme natural events each year. During the same period an average of almost 100,000 people a year lost their lives as a result of the disasters caused by these events.

Interdependence between disasters and poverty

Major disasters such as the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 (more than 230,000 killed), Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008 (around 140,000 killed) and the devastating earthquake in 2010 in Haiti (more than 200,000 killed) hit poor countries particularly hard. Geographical location is only one of the risk factors: more important is the country’s level of development. Poverty is seen as one of the main factors responsible for loss of lives following extreme natural events. The poorer people are, the less protection they have against natural hazards.

The World Disasters Report 2015 published by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) shows this very clearly. The data in the report, which also covers technical disasters, provide the following picture for the period from 2005 to 2014:

  • Just under two billion people were affected by more than 6,300 disasters.
  • Approximately 839,000 people died.
  • The total amount of damage caused by the disasters was about 1.6 trillion US dollars.
  • About 25 per cent of the disasters recorded in the report hit countries with a low level of development – however, almost 60 per cent of the deaths occurred in these countries.
  • Very highly developed countries experienced 18 per cent of the disasters. They recorded 64 per cent of the physical damage – but only five per cent of the deaths.

The impacts of climate change

Climate change and its impacts are not the source of all destructive natural events. However, the increase in the frequency and intensity of weather-induced extreme events cannot be explained without reference to global climate change.

Since 1980, the registered number of extreme weather events has increased by a factor of three. The series of World Bank reports on the impacts of climate change, Turn Down the Heat (2012–2014), confirms that it is mainly developing countries which will be affected by these changes and therefore calls for more action from the international community.

The fifth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in 2014, also warns about the impacts of climate change, for example on economic development and food security. It also asks which measures for adaptation to climate change can prevent future natural events from turning into disasters.

The impacts of climate change are already being felt most strongly by poor countries. This is evident, for example, from the Global Climate Risk Index 2015 compiled by the environmental and development organisation Germanwatch: nine of the ten countries that were especially hard hit by extreme weather between 1994 and 2013 were developing countries.

Vulnerability of cities

Half the world’s people are already living in cities. It is estimated that, by 2050, that share will have risen to about two thirds. The rapidly growing "megacities" with populations of more than ten million, in particular, are considered by the United Nations to be increasingly vulnerable to natural hazards such as floods, storms and landslides.

The risk is especially high for the inhabitants of informal settlements. Estimates suggest that as many as one in seven people worldwide have insecure tenure. They often live in areas where the risk of flooding or landslides is high. Their buildings are generally not included in any urban emergency plans that may exist. Furthermore, many of them have not been built to the necessary standards.

It has been calculated that, by 2050, at least two thirds of all people will be living close to the coast. Because sea levels are continuously rising as a result of global warming, numerous coastal cities will find themselves facing existential challenges in the future.

State fragility and armed conflict

State fragility and armed conflict also count among the factors that can make people more vulnerable to disasters. It is estimated, for example, that more than 50 per cent of the people hit by disasters between 2005 and 2009 were living in countries marked by violence, conflict and uncertain political circumstances. People’s options for taking precautions against extreme natural events and for coping with the aftermath without outside assistance are extremely limited in such circumstances.

BMZ glossary

Close window


Share page