The recent earthquakes in
"The past decade has been the costliest for natural disasters ever," writes
This decade follows a trend of massive increases in overall losses from disasters: Costs jumped from
The number of observed disasters is also rising -- by about 5 percent per year since 1960. According to
While the economic cost of disasters has been rising, a perhaps more important value -- the death toll -- has been falling. From 1900 to 2003, 62 millions deaths resulted from natural disasters throughout the world. But 85 percent of those deaths occurred between 1900 and 1950.
Why the lower death toll, when the number of disasters has not dropped? The reason disasters are becoming less deadly is also the reason they are becoming more expensive.
Kahn's 2005 paper found that the higher death toll in some nations was not explained by a large number of
catastrophes or particularly severe earthquakes, floods, droughts, or other shocks. In fact,
Kahn cites the recent disasters as examples of his theory at work.
Chile, with a GDP per capita of
"In Chile, we know that they had better building codes," Kahn says. "A richer guy
can afford a home built from better materials. In
But being richer also means that there is more wealth to destroy. A disaster like Hurricane Katrina might cause fewer deaths than a disaster like the earthquake in
The fewer deaths of the past 50 years go hand-in-hand with the more expensive disasters. Increased wealth means societies are less vulnerable to disasters, but when they occur, they are more expensive. "Even as disaster mitigation lowers the total percentage of capital stock that is damaged, when the capital stock itself goes up, it's possible that the total damage goes up as well," says
But there is a major factor that could complicate the relationship between economic development and natural disasters. In the past 30 years, the world has seen more droughts, floods, and tropical storms resulting from climate change, according to the
The good news, says Kahn, is that more economic growth can help societies prepare for that possibility. "Our best strategy to adapting to these risks is economic development," he says. He cites cars as an example. More money allows people to buy more expensive cars that are generally cleaner to operate, as opposed to cheap, used clunkers that pollute the environment. "If we all drove around with 20-year-old vehicles, there's be more pollution and we'd be less safe," Kahn says.
More money also means that people have more to donate to countries like
This is not to say Werker believes all disaster aid to poor countries is a bad thing. Instead, he argues that countries and citizens with money to give should shift their priorities. "It's probably safe to say that as a whole, the international community is too focused on relief over prevention," he says.
Werker suggests that donors give money to areas that will allow poor countries more of the same advantages that rich countries can afford: building codes and enforcement, dikes, levees, early-warning systems for tsunamis, and basic infrastructure like irrigation and rural road maintenance to combat droughts.
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