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Earthquakes to tsunamis: How do worldwide disasters compare?

The riches of developed nations aren't always enough to protect those in need.

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By any standard the natural disasters of the past year have been unprecedented in scale and scope. The international aid organization I work for, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), only rarely responds to natural disasters. The majority of our work is with war-affected populations and in domestic refugee resettlement. But in the past 10 months we have responded worldwide to disasters of historic proportions: the tsunami in Aceh, hurricane Katrina in the United States, and now the earthquake in Pakistan.

What do the numbers in the accompanying chart suggest about the nature of disaster? Three critical facts: Better warning systems and improved evacuation plans are imperative to saving lives in predictable disasters such as tsunamis and hurricanes; spending money on preventive or mitigating measures is likely to be much less expensive than rebuilding after a disaster strikes; when aid is insufficient, vulnerable populations are at greatest risk.

Risks for vulnerable populations

In countries that have few resources and where access by rescue operations is limited, the impact of a disaster is often compounded by the outbreak of disease or the inability to provide sufficient aid to the wounded and displaced.

This has been well documented. Studies of large-scale displacement in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and northern Iraq following the first Gulf War reveal that more people die from normally treatable diseases than because of violence.

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