According to the World Bank, during the 1990’s about 80-thousand people died each year in natural calamities. On average, 51 people died per natural disaster in developed countries, compared to 589 deaths per natural disaster in the developing world.
"It’s certainly true that it’s not only the poor countries that are most hardly hit by natural disasters, but it’s the poor people within the countries that bear the brunt of the impact," says Mark Pelling, Professor of Geography at King’s College of the University of London and author of the book "The Vulnerability of Cities: Natural Disasters and Social Resilience."
Professor Pelling says the poor are especially vulnerable to natural hazards because of their inadequate housing, fragile health and lack of back-up resources in case of emergencies. This was evident, for example, during the heavy rains in Venezuela in 1999.
"There was a huge land slide along the coast, and Caracas was badly hit by this following rain fall. And those people who lost their lives and lost their home were the informal dwellers in the city who were living on the hill slopes. There were also some middle and high-income groups living on hill slopes, but their properties were properly designed to a higher standard at least and that meant there was less of an impact," says Professor Pelling.
Developed countries are better prepared for natural disasters. The attractive west coast of the United States is prone to earthquakes, tsunamis, forest fires and even volcano eruptions. But that does not keep wealthy people from living there.
Jim Goltz, Earthquake Program Manager at the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services in Pasadena, says his office helps smaller local governments prepare people for disasters. "Earthquakes are monitored generally by federal agencies like the US Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and that information is centralized and processed and provided to agencies like mine."
Mr. Goltz says California has well established warning systems and they are not all that costly. But natural disasters are often unpredictable so it is important to know how to respond when they happen. Mr. Goltz says California has well established warning systems and they are not all that costly. But natural disasters are often unpredictable so it is important to know how to respond when they
"More important than warning systems is having a population that’s aware of the risk of tsunamis, understands that when you feel an earthquake in a coastal area, it could be followed by a tsunami and that people should turn on radios and television and be aware of warnings that might be issued in connection with this."
In addition, California has strict building laws. Overall, says Mr. Goltz, it is cheaper to prepare for disasters than recover from them and wealthy countries could help the poor develop such programs. But analysts note that international aid agencies are often more willing to send large aid after disasters strike than much smaller aid to help prevent huge losses.
Mark Pelling of the University of London says there are many reasons for that, some very prosaic. "It makes very good press and very high visibility for governments to invest or spend money in humanitarian relief. It’s much less visible and you get much less political kudos for spending money over the long term in a very low-visibility way; in perhaps strengthening livelihoods, or improving governance, or improving the physical structures in planning of a city."
The problem with humanitarian aid, says Mark Pelling, is that it helps in emergencies. It removes people from the immediate hazard, saves lives and provides food and shelters. But it does not improve the quality of life in the long run and can make populations even more vulnerable once the emergency is over.
"There’s certainly no lack of practical knowledge on the ground. There is thirty years of academic argument that suggests that poverty alleviation and disaster-risk reduction will pay out in the end and it’s political will that’s lacking at the moment," says Professor Pelling.
Ian Vasquez, an analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, says economic growth is the best protection from natural disasters. "It’s only through the sustained economic growth that poor people can be pulled out of the precarious living conditions that they experience and that can mean a matter of life and death even over the short term of ten years."
Hopes are high that the recent tragedy, which took some 150-thousand lives in South Asia, will prompt the developed world to make a more concerted effort to reduce poverty.