Originally created 11/28/98

Report: weather causes record $89 billion damage, humans not innocent



WASHINGTON -- Violent weather has cost the world a record $89 billion this year, more money than was lost from weather-related disasters in all of the 1980s, and researchers in a study released Friday blame human meddling for much of it.

Preliminary estimates by the Worldwatch Institute and Munich Re, the world's largest reinsurer, put total losses from storms, floods, droughts and fires for the first 11 months of the year 48 percent higher than the previous one-year record of more than $60 billion in 1996.

This year's damage was also far ahead of the $55 billion in losses for the entire decade of the 1980s. Even when adjusted for inflation, the 1980s losses, at $82.7 billion, still fall short of the first 11 months of this year.

In addition to the material losses, the disasters have killed an estimated 32,000 people and displaced 300 million -- more than the population of the United States -- according to the report.

The study is based on estimates from Worldwatch, an environmental research group, and Munich Re, the Frankfurt, Germany-based reinsurer, which writes policies that protect insurance companies from the risk of massive claims that might put them out of business.

The report says a combination of deforestation and climate change has caused this year's most severe disasters, among them Hurricane Mitch, the flooding of China's Yangtze River and Bangladesh's most extensive flood of the century.

"More and more, there's a human fingerprint in natural disasters in that we're making them more frequent and more intense and we're also ... making them more destructive," said Seth Dunn, research associate and climate change expert at the institute.

Dunn said when hillsides are left bare, rainfall will rush across the land or into rivers without being slowed by trees and allowed to be absorbed by the soil or evaporate back into the atmosphere. This leads to floods and landslides that are strong enough to wipe out roads, farms and fisheries far downstream.

"In a sense, we're turning up the faucets ... and throwing away the sponges, like the forests and the wetlands," said Dunn.

Another element that has contributed to this year's losses is the growing population pressures that have led many people to settle on vulnerable flood plains and hillsides.

The most severe 1998 disasters listed in the report include Hurricane Mitch, the deadliest Atlantic storm in 200 years, which has caused more than 10,000 deaths in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, and caused damage estimated at $4 billion in Honduras and $1 billion in Nicaragua.

The study said Mitch hit an ecologically vulnerable region. Central American nations have experienced some of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, losing some 2 percent to 4 percent of their remaining forest cover each year, said the study.

The costliest disaster of 1998, according to the report, was the flooding of the Yangtze River in the summer. It killed more than 3,000 people, dislocated about 230 million people and incurred $30 billion in losses.

The study said that while heavy summer rains are common in southern and central China, the Yangtze Basin has lost 85 percent of its forest cover to logging and agriculture in recent decades, wetlands have been drained, and the river heavily dammed.

Bangladesh suffered its most extensive flood of the century in the summer. Two-thirds of the low-lying country located at the mouth of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers was flooded for months, 30 million people were left temporarily homeless, and 10,000 miles of roads were heavily damaged. Damage estimates exceed $3.4 billion.

Logging upriver in the Himalayas of north India and Nepal exacerbated the disaster, as did the fact that the region's rivers and flood plains have been filled with silt and constricted by development, according to the report.

"Climate change and rising sea levels are projected to make Bangladesh even more vulnerable to flooding in the future," said the study.

The study said governments are beginning to recognize the role of human activities in worsening natural disasters. It noted that China has banned logging in the upper Yangtze watershed, prohibited additional land reclamation projects in the river's flood plain and earmarked $2 billion to reforest the watershed.

"Unless ravaged nations rebuild along a path of sustainable development that emphasizes restoring and maintaining healthy ecosystems, they risk even greater exposure to the devastation of unnatural disasters in the future," said the report.