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Natural Disasters

Author: Lt Col Etienne F van Blerk, Staff Officer – Environmental Co-ordination, Department of Defence, RSA

( Article Type: Explanation )

The United Nations (UN) humanitarian news and information service IRIN reports that natural disasters are occurring more often with a dramatic impact on the world in terms of both human and economic costs. Despite a decline in loss of life as a result of natural disasters in the past 20 years (about 800 000 deaths in the 1990s compared to almost 2 million in the 1970s), there is a significant increase in the number of people affected by these events.

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies announced that 428 natural disasters were reported on average for each year from 1994 to1998, but this figure escalated dramatically to 707 from 1999 to 2003 with a marked increase of 142% in developing countries. In 2003 alone, 700 natural disasters claimed the lives of 75 000 people and caused damage to the amount of $US65 billion according to an international insurer. The increase in these occurrences is ascribed to factors of environmental degradation, climate change, population growth (particularly unplanned urbanisation) and the adverse results of economic globalisation impacting on poorer nations that find it difficult to commit appropriate amounts from gross domestic product to prevent or repair disaster damage.

Natural disasters are generally classified into three groups, i.e. weather-related, geophysical and biological disaster. Weatherrelated events are far more common than those of a geophysical nature – by a ratio of 9 to 1. The 275 000 fatalities globally resulting from weather-related drought and famine since 1994, however, was matched at the blink of an eye during the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean – an event of geophysical origin following a brief yet violent series of sub-oceanic tremors.

A natural disaster is generally defined as a catastrophe that occurs when a hazardous event (such as a volcanic eruption, earthquake, landslide, hurricane, or any other natural phenomena) leads to extensive damage to property, a large number of casualties, or both. In areas where there are no human interests, natural events are not considered natural disasters. Disasters impact at the level of an individual, a community or that of the state. The extent of casualties and devastating effect of a disaster depends on the capacity of the population to resist it – disasters, therefore, manifest where hazards meet vulnerability.

As such, the UN launched its International Strategy for Disaster Reduction in 2000 to address the underlying causes of vulnerability and to build disaster-resilient communities by promoting increased awareness of the essence of disaster reduction as an integral component of Sustainable Development. The goal is to reduce human, social, economic and environmental losses due to hazards of all kinds. With this strategy in mind, Parliament passed the 2001 Disaster Management Bill of the Department of Provincial and Local Government’s National Disaster Management Centre to address the management, declaration and prevention of disasters in South Africa.

Both these initiatives are linked to efficient relief action in the wake of a natural disaster as well as disaster contingency. The significant occurrence of weather-related natural disasters have been linked to the phenomena of global warming and climate change arising from increased levels of human-induced atmospheric pollution. Disaster reduction, particularly the incidence of weather-related events, should therefore be seen in the broader context of global action to stem deterioration of the earth’s atmosphere and associated climatic regime.