On September 19th, 2013 Acapulco was underwater. The second most important beach town in Mexico was hit hard by Hurricane Manuel. In “El Sur”, a newspaper, statements about hundreds of communities completely isolated, “with deaths not yet accounted for and with losses that were still impossible to quantify” were not uncommon.
- Disasters are not “natural”
It is not surprising that the losses caused by natural phenomena are one of the most catastrophic manifestations of economic and social underdevelopment in Latin America and the Caribbean. Let’s start by saying that there’s actually no such thing as a natural disaster. Disasters are the result of risk and vulnerability to a threat caused by nature. This makes them an intrinsically social phenomenon whose economic and human costs are extremely high.
- 2017 was the second most catastrophic year
If not for the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, the record for the costliest year in terms of economic damages caused by disasters would have been broken in 2017. The losses were astonishing: the figures amounted to more than 330 billion dollars. The dead: almost 10,000.
The Latin America and the Caribbean region was not immune to the impact of catastrophes caused by geophysical, hydrometeorological and climate-related events. The earthquake of Mexico City (September 20th, 2017) was the costliest event in the region and the fifth most expensive disaster worldwide, with damages that amounted to approximately 6 billion dollars. Only Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Maria, the Napa and Sonoma wildfires in California, and the floods in Hunan, Zhuzhou and Ningxiang, in China, took a higher economic toll.
- Disasters in the region strike more often
Empirical evidence suggests disasters in the region are on the rise, both in terms of recurrence and intensity. While in 1980 there were 61 disasters, in 1990 there were at least 75 disasters. In 2000, 98 events took place and in 2010, the number escalated to 162 disasters. In 2016, Latin America and the Caribbean was hit by 323 disaster events, twice as many as in 2010.
The same trend is observed for those disasters considered highly destructive. While in 1980 there were only 5 catastrophes on record, the figure rose to 12 in 2016.
- Disasters are very expensive
Between 1980 and 2016, the region was struck by 4,125 disasters, where at least 292,361 people lost their lives. These losses accounted for 282 billion dollars (inflation-adjusted). On average, every hour, the region loses 1.2 million dollars because of a disaster. To put the figure in perspective, the annual cost of disasters in the region is equivalent to six times the GDP of Belize (IMF 2017), is 35 times greater than the budget Mexico allocates to public policies for the development of indigenous peoples and communities (Mexico 2017), and it would be enough to cover (and increase by 39%) the public spending of the prison systems of all the countries of the region (IDB 2017).
In real terms, only seven events have exceeded 5 billion dollars in economic losses: the Vargas landslide in Venezuela (5,177 million), the Mexico City earthquake of September 2017 (6,000 million), Hurricane Ike in Cuba (7,073 million), the 2010 Haiti earthquake (7,447 million), Hurricane Mitch (Honduras, 7,772 million), and the earthquake in Mexico City in September 1985 (8,117 million). The most expensive event in the region’s recent history, however, is the devastating 2010 earthquake in Chile, causing over 27,666 million dollars in damages.
- No country is exempt
All countries in the region have been impacted by at least one disaster since 1980. The ten countries most affected by disasters in the last quarter of the century are Mexico (480), Brazil (332), Colombia (288), Peru (279), Argentina (234), Chile (196), Guatemala (195), Ecuador (150), Honduras (127) and Nicaragua (125).
Geophysical disasters have occurred mainly in Mexico (15% of the total geophysical events in the region), Chile (11%) and Peru (11%). Most hydrometeorological disasters in the region have been observed in Mexico (12%), Brazil (10%) and Colombia (7%). Finally, the countries that get hit the most by climatic disasters are Mexico (12%), Brazil (10%) and Chile (10%).
- The immense cost of disasters is likely to increase further
Population growth in the region is a critical factor that explains the higher potential for disaster damage in the medium and long term. In addition, a considerable number of urban settlements and assets and critical infrastructure are clustered in areas of high vulnerability such as coasts, seismic zones and/or with fluvial-related problems and slopes prone to landslide. Furthermore, the combination of inadequate urban development, an increase in the number of informal settlements, and other weaknesses in the risk management governance frameworks increase disaster risk. Climate change, in turn, is playing a key role in the higher frequency of disastrous events.
- The IDB is an ally to mitigate the negative effects of disasters
Developing and consolidating disaster risk management as well as adaptation processes to the adverse effects of climate change in the region is an essential condition to secure development. IDB promotes strategies, policies and measures aimed at improving our understanding of disaster risk, fostering the reduction and financial protection of disaster risk, and promoting continuous improvement in readiness, response and recovery practices for disaster cases, with the explicit objective of increasing human safety, well-being, life quality, resilience and sustainable development.
From the Bank we will continue to innovate with projects that (i) increase resilience to climate shocks, (ii) make the use and management of coasts and natural capital more efficient to guarantee their sustainability and use as a first line of defense against natural threats and (iii) contribute to increasing the preventive and reactive capacities, particularly among vulnerable groups, in Latin America and the Caribbean. It is not an easy task, but there are at least 292,361 reasons that encourage us to try.
Photo by Denniz Futalan from Pexels