BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Deaths, economic damage and other negative impacts from disasters have caused losses equivalent to 42 million life years annually since 1980, a measure that is comparable to the burden of tuberculosis worldwide, the United Nations said.
More than 90 percent of the total “years” lost in disasters between 1980 and 2012 were in low and middle-income countries, representing a serious setback to their development, the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) said.
“If these figures show that disaster loss is as much a critical global challenge to economic development and social progress as is disease, they also show that it is a challenge unequally shared,” the UNISDR said in a report on Wednesday.
Bina Desai, UNISDR policy and research coordinator, referred to the number of years lost due to disaster-related deaths, injuries, economic damage and other losses as an “opportunity cost”.
“It is lost time that could otherwise be invested in development and social progress,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In particular, risk from recurring, smaller disasters rather than huge one-off events drives poverty through destruction of homes, water supplies, infrastructure, and health and education facilities, the report said.
Yet 10 years after governments signed up to a global plan to tackle disasters, known as the Hyogo Framework for Action, disaster risk “has not been reduced significantly”, it said.
“We are playing with fire,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a statement.
“There is a very real possibility that disaster risk, fueled by climate change, will reach a tipping point beyond which the effort and resources necessary to reduce it will exceed the capacity of future generations.”
Governments will meet in Japan from March 14 to 18 to adopt an updated version of the framework, still being negotiated.
Disaster risk is already making it hard for many countries to afford the capital investment and social spending they need to develop sustainably, the report said.
Growing global inequality, increasing hazard exposure, rapid urbanization and overconsumption of energy and natural resources threaten to drive risk to dangerous and unpredictable levels with systemic global impacts, it warned.
Expected losses from disasters caused by earthquakes, tsunamis, tropical cyclones and river flooding worldwide are estimated at $314 billion per year, or almost $70 for each person of working age, according to the report.
This includes only damage to commercial and residential properties, schools and hospitals, Desai said. The figure would be even higher if it included other hazards such as drought, and other sectors like utilities and agriculture.
“This is not what will happen in terms of losses on an annual basis - it is what countries should prepare for,” Desai said. “But you can reduce these risk levels.”
Global annual investment of $6 billion in managing disaster risk - only 0.1 percent of the $6 trillion per year that will be required to build infrastructure over the next 15 years - would result in total avoided losses of $360 billion, the report said.
“For many countries, that small additional investment could make a crucial difference in achieving the national and international goals of ending poverty, improving health and education, and ensuring sustainable and equitable growth,” it added.
Measures to reduce the risk of disasters include rules that strengthen buildings and prevent construction on floodplains, urban drainage, early warning systems and insurance schemes for small farmers.
Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Tim Pearce