Natural Disasters and Failed States

I live in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, and we are currently being pounded by a 800-kilometer wide hurricane (cyclone). This week’s storm refocuses our attention on natural disasters. Aside from their physical power, these events tell us much about societies and development around the world.

The most basic fact about natural disasters around the world is the highly variable death tolls they bring. Major disasters in developed countries are considered very deadly if they kill a few hundred people. Storms, earthquakes, or droughts of similar intensity can kill thousands, or even tens of thousands, in developing countries. True, it can be challenging to compare the severity of disasters in different contexts, but the basic global pattern is stark and sobering. With the important exception of Japan’s mega-disaster in 2011, modern mega-disasters exclusively occur in poorer countries, and especially those with weak governments. Here are just a few recent catastrophes:

  • Haiti earthquake (2010): more than 200,000 killed
  • Myanmar (Burma) cyclone (2008): more than 130,000 killed
  • Pakistan earthquake (2006): more than 70,000 killed
  • Indian Ocean tsunami (2004, Indonesia and other countries): more than 270,000 killed
  • Bangladesh cyclone (1991): more than 130,000 killed

And, lest you think that developing countries are simply more prone to natural disasters, North America (and the United States especially) is the most disaster-prone region in the world.

Why, then, do developing countries experience so much more loss of life in natural disasters? The answers are many, and vary by the type of disaster. In general, though, poor and weakly governed states suffer from the following problems:

  • Less effective advanced warning.
  • Illiteracy and lower levels of education.
  • Less sturdy buildings and infrastructure.
  • Less effective land use planning.
  • Slower and less effective disaster recovery.
  • In some cases, an unwillingness to accept international assistance, as with the case of Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, and North Korea during various episodes of famine.

On a positive note, some developing countries are dramatically improving their disaster preparedness and response. Chile, for example, sustained relatively few casualties after a massive 8.8 magnitude earthquake in  February 2010. Even though major population centers were affected, only about 500 deaths were reported. Progress is possible.