By Sndrew Wagaman | New Europe
Countries most vulnerable to natural disasters are not necessarily the ones facing the most environmental degradation, a new report finds.
According to WorldRiskReport 2012, prepared by the UN University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) and released on 11 October, the risk of any given country depends on the economic, social and institutional conditions of its society.
The report ranks the risk of 173 countries based on an index that quantifies structural susceptibility, coping capacity and adaptation capacity along with exposure to natural hazards.
Areas especially vulnerable include Oceania, Southeast Asia, and especially Central America and the Caribbean. The South Pacific island of Vanuatu ranked the most at-risk, while Qatar ranked the least. Of the EU member states, the Netherlands is the most vulnerable, ranking No. 51 overall.
UNU-EHS director Jakob Rhyner emphasized that the rankings should not be seen as an instrument of reproach but one of public awareness and, hopefully, support.
“We must go a step further and address the root causes of vulnerability,” Rhyner said. “If a country is hit, how well can it expect to support itself?”
Released two days before the International Day for Disaster Reduction (13 October), the report argues that both politics and sciences have paid too little attention to disaster risk. The costs of natural disasters continue to rise – in 2011, about 366 billion dollars were spent on them.
This is not just because of progressing environmental degradation but also bad decision-making. Earthquakes cannot be prevented, but vulnerability to them can be reduced.
The index’s four components contain 28 indicators within them. Susceptibility is measured by things like access to sanitation, water and food, poverty and GDP per capita. Coping capacity is measured by governance strength, medical services and types of available insurance.
Adaptive capacity – the capacity to learn from past disasters – is measured by literacy rates, gender parity in education and government and environmental protection. The report uses the recent massive earthquakes in Haiti (7.0 on Richter Scale) and New Zealand (6.3) to highlight stark differences in disaster risk. Haiti, ranked No. 21 in risk, had more than 200,000 fatalities, while New Zealand (No. 122) had less than 200.
Poverty levels, governance and insurance explain the difference in severity. In Haiti, 55% of its population is below the poverty line, and only 69% have access to piped water. Practically no one falls below that level in New Zealand. According to the report’s quantification of corruption, in which a rating of 1 indicates rampant corruption, Haiti rates 1.8 and New Zealand rates 9.46.
And while losses amounted to 16 billion dollars in New Zealand compared to 8 billion dollars in Haiti, 80% of New Zealand’s losses were insured; only 2.5% were insured in Haiti. In fact, the losses exceeded Haiti’s gross national product.
“The new (report) gives us a vivid picture of how environmental destruction on a global scale is increasingly becoming a direct threat to human beings,” said Peter Mucke, director of Alliance Development Works, which contributed to the report.
“Where slopes have been deforested, where protective reefs, mangroves and wetlands have degenerated or even completely disappeared, the forces of nature impact with far higher force on inhabited areas.”
Besides addressing the indicators of each component, particularly those of coping capacity and adaptation capacity, countries can improve their rating with “green solutions” like the restoration of coastal ecosystems. Coral reefs, mangroves and marshes all help reduce wave energy or mitigate rising water levels.
“Coastal habitats can play a major role in reducing risk,” said Christine Shephard of The Nature Conservacy. “Most at risk are all tropical and coastal areas, where reefs and mangroves are critical and often degraded. Reefs and wetlands are flexible and cost-effective alternatives because of their added benefits,” such as added jobs through fisheries or tourism.
These solutions are especially relevant to tropical areas with exposed coasts but can also apply to Europe. Salt marshes in particular can be integrated here, as countries around the Baltic Sea have begun doing.
Of the member states, only the Netherlands, Greece (No. 72 overall) and Romania (No. 82) have below-average ratings, and almost solely because of exposure levels. All 27 member states have above-average standards in the index’s other components.