Red Cross Says Disasters Likely to Increase

GENEVA -- Global warming, environmental degradation and population growth are likely to increase the frequency and severity of natural disasters, a report by the international Red Cross warned Thursday.

The World Disasters Report said 1998 was the grimmest year on record - with Hurricane Mitch killing 10,000 people in Central America, Indonesia parched by the worst drought in 50 years and floods affecting 180 million people in China.

Fires, droughts and floods from last year's freak El Ni?o weather pattern claimed 21,000 lives and contributed to an overall natural disaster bill of more than $90 billion, it said.

Natural disasters created more refugees than conflict did, the report said. Declining soil fertility, drought, flooding and deforestation drove 25 million "environmental refugees'' from their land.

The report warned of a new era of "super-disasters.''

"Everyone is aware of the environmental problems of global warming and deforestation on the one hand and the social problems of increasing poverty and growing shanty towns on the other,'' said Astrid Heiberg, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. "But when these two factors collide you have a new scale of catastrophe,'' she said.

The report pointed out that 1 billion people live in unplanned shanty towns, and that 40 of the 50 fastest growing cities are at risk of earthquakes. It said half the world's population lives in coastal zones, with 10 million people at constant risk of being affected by floods. Some 96 percent of all deaths from natural disasters are in developing countries.

"And this is just the beginning,'' the report said. With rising temperatures and melting ice sheets expected to increase sea levels by 44 centimeters in the next 80 years, there will likely be a tenfold rise in the number of people at risk of floods.

The rising water levels threaten low-lying islands and densely populated river deltas in countries including Bangladesh, Egypt and China. Coastal cities at risk include some of the world's largest - Tokyo, Shanghai, Lagos and Jakarta - it said. The cost of the necessary protective walls could be astronomical.

But as the number of disasters rises, aid for poor countries falls. Over the past five years, emergency aid has been slashed by 40 percent, the report said.

Insurance coverage is also shrinking as the industry tries to protect itself against the costs of climate change.

After suffering a number of billion-dollar storms, many insurance companies now refuse to insure the hurricane-prone Caribbean. In the case of Hurricane Mitch, which devastated much of Honduras and Nicaragua, only 2 percent of the $7 billion in losses was covered.

"And that substantial gap will continue to increase as the insurance industry continues to retreat from the front line of disaster coverage to escape escalating losses,'' it said.

The report urged governments to spend more on disaster preparedness. In China, a study showed that $3.5 billion invested in flood control over the past 40 years saved the economy $12 billion in potential losses.