7 January 2010

The ten most important “natural” disasters of the last ten years

Posted by Dave Petley

As we are now at the end of the “noughties” I thought that it would be interesting to compile a list of the ten most important “natural” (i.e. geophysical and hydro-meteorological) disasters of the decade. This is not intended to be a list of the ten most damaging or with the highest number of fatalities, but more to reflect events that changed the way that we think or act about disasters. As such the list is compiled very much from my perspective – I would welcome comments on the ones that I have missed. The statistical data are from the CRED EM-DAT database.

So here goes, in reverse order:

10. The Gujurat Earthquake, India, 26th May 2001
With 20,000 fatalities, the Bhuj earthquake was a huge event. From a technical perspective the key aspect of this event was that it occurred in an intra-plate area – i.e. not in the immediate vicinity of a major tectonic fault system. Whilst the hazard in such areas has long been recognised, this earthquake served to highlight the need to focus attention on all areas with high seismic hazard, not just those in tectonically-active locations.

9. The Guinsaugon landslide, Philippines, 17th February 2006
The tragedy of the Guinsaugon landslide is that the authorities and local people were aware of the threat posed by the slope, and evacuated the town. However, when the heavy rainfall (brought by a typhoon) stopped, the people returned to their homes and schools, only to be buried by the slide. The impact was dreadful. The event illustrated the need for joined up thinking on hazards and also the need to coordinate rescue operations properly. The difficulties encountered by the rescue teams both in trying to identify where the buried infrastructure actually was, and in keeping themselves safe, served an important lesson.

8. The Bam Earthquake, Iran, 26th December 2003
The Bam earthquake was the first of the two “Boxing Day” disasters of the noughties. The earthquake was a direct hit on the ancient city of Bam, the centre of which collapsed almost completely. The death toll was fearsome (26,796 people), and the earthquake brought into sharp relief the role that poor building construction plays in disaster causation. The rammed earth citadel collapsed whilst adjacent brick buildings designed to withstand shaking were essentially undamaged. The loss of the cultural heritage of this ancient city is an enduring tragedy.

7. The Simeule / Nias earthquake, Indonesia, 28th March 2005
With a death toll of 915, this event may seem at first glance to be too small to justify a place in this list. However, this event confirmed the fears of many seismologists that large earthquakes can weaken unfailed sections of adjacent faults, allowing them to rupture in the aftermath of the big event. The recognition that this was occurring along the Sumatra subduction system led to the conclusion that Indonesia faces a period of elevated seismic activity – as has subsequently proven to be the case. This also served to further raise concern about the other fault that we know behaves in this way – the North Anatolian fault in Turkey.

6. The Kashmir earthquake (Pakistan and India), 8th October 2005
The true toll from the Kashmir earthquake remains unclear – the official total in Pakistan is 73,338, whilst the Red Cross has suggested that a more realistic number may be 100,000. The extraordinary destruction, in particular in the towns of Balakot and Muzaffarabad, was big news for many days. The difficulties of providing assistance to a mountain population as winter approached was perhaps the biggest story. The combined efforts of air forces and NGOs from around the world, working with the Pakistan Army, averted the second potential tragedy and opened new lines of communication in the aftermath of large events.

5. The summer 2003 heatwave in Europe
The exceptional temperatures recorded in Europe in Summer 2003 is estimated to have killed over 60,000 people. The long term impact of this event has been equally profound – subsequent analysis has shown that this event is difficult to explain but for the impacts of anthropogenic climate change – probably for the first time scientists could say with justification that climate change is inducing severe weather events. The realisation that these conditions, or worse, may affect Europe on an annual basis as the climate warms undoubtedly changed the perspective of politicians with regard to the climate change debate.

4. The Wenchuan Earthquake, China, 12th May 2008
The impact of the Wenchuan earthquake on the mountains of the Longminshan range was extraordinary. The destruction of the schools in particular will remain in the memory for a long time. In the aftermath of the earthquake the world watched as the government strove to cope with both the disaster itself and the landslide dams that littered the landscape. The successful mitigation of these dams was an extraordinary achievement, but the treatment of the parents of children killed in schools puts the authorities in a different light.

3. Cyclone Nargis, Burma (Myanmar), 2nd May 2008
Cyclone Nargis feels like the big event that everyone has forgotten. At the time it was big news, but it rapidly fell off the TV screens and, given that Burma is a military state, there was little hope of prolonged world attention, especially given the impact of the Wenchuan earthquake just ten days later. However, the extreme death toll (138,366 people) should serve to remind us that Indian Ocean cyclones remain a major threat.

2. Hurricane Katrina, USA, 29th August 2005
The impact of Katrina on New Orleans remains one of the enduring images of the decade. That a major city in a developed country could be so disastrously affected by a hurricane was a shock to many. In many ways the greatest shock was the failure of the US authorities to take action in the aftermath of the event. Around the world government’s became aware of the vulnerability of coastal cities to large events.

1. The Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, 26th December 2004
The two obvious aspects of this disaster are of course the huge death-toll (165,708 in Indonesia alone, probably c.250,000 worldwide, according to the EM-DAT database) across a huge swathe of the coast around the Indian Ocean, and the dramatic footage captured by CCTV and personal videos. However, this was a game-changing disaster, causing governments around the world to sit up and take notice of the potential impact of large events.

The dreadful impact of the disasters listed above, and many others, should serve to remind us that we have a long way to go to reduce disaster losses. I cannot help but feel that, dreadful though the above list undoubtedly is, we have once again dodged the bullet. None of the above represented a direct hit on a major city in a less developed country. The threat to places such as Kathmandu and Tehran, and many other places, remains unacceptably high – the million fatality natural disaster remains a genuine possibility.