Disasters have been a hot topic in the media recently. I don’t want to address the current issue of media representation here – have we heard enough of one disaster and not enough of others or are we hearing the true message about current disasters – but I will try to provide some evidence for the following questions, expanding on summarised answers given here:

How big a problem are disasters? – Well, they negatively affect somewhere between about 1% and 10% of the world’s population every year…so, I think that we can fairly safely conclude that they are a pretty large problem. And, they have a tendency to hamper development work in low-income countries and affect these areas in a disproportionate manner.

Are they becoming more prevalent? – Over the last 20+ years there may be a trend towards an increase but this is not conclusive.

What are we doing to reduce the risk? – My interpretation is that we are trying really hard but we aren’t really getting very far just yet. A bit like the MDG’s.


There are of course imperfections in the data that is available regarding disaster risk. According to a report published by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) this is due to a number of reasons including differences in definitions and classification of disasters (1). However, we can look towards the data provided by CRED to give us an idea of the numbers involved. The figure shown below is from CRED’s Annual Disaster Statistical Review 2009 (2).

This data shows that over the last two decades the number of people affected by disasters annually ranges from around 80 million to 660 million, in 2002. The enormous 2002 figure was largely due to around 300 million people being affected by the drought in India (2).

Another major factor here is the apparent disproportionate effect the disasters have on the poor. Data provided in the World Disasters Report 2009 (3) published by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) shows the imbalance from a simple numbers point of view:

Total number of people affected by disasters between 1999 and 2008, in thousands

–          High human development countries             73 163

–          Medium human development countries      2 434 060

–          Low human development countries             188 590

The trend of the number of reported disasters does appear to have gone up over the last 20+ years. The CRED’s Annual Disaster Statistical Review from 2006 (4) shows that between 1987 and 1997 the number of disasters varied between 200 and 250, but between 2000 and 2006 it was somewhere around the 350 to 450 mark. However, 2008 and 2009 both saw a reduction, and the data does not track back far enough to show us a true trend. In addition to this the data is wildly variable due to single enormous events.

According to AusAID, quoting from the State of the World Report 2007 by the World Watch Institute, “In the last quarter-century, 98% of the people injured or affected by natural disasters were living in 112 countries classified as low income or low-middle income” (5).*

The UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) was launched in 2000. ISDR organised the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in 2005, the outcome of which was the “Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the resilience of nations and communities to disasters” (6).

As I am sure you can imagine this document sets out myriad specific points about what we should be doing, but most importantly what is the progress towards these goals? The 2009 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (7) summarises thus:

“Progress towards reducing disaster risk is still mixed. In general terms, countries are making significant progress in strengthening capacities, institutional systems and legislation to address deficiencies in disaster preparedness and response. Good progress is also being made in other areas, such as the enhancement of early warning. In contrast, countries report little progress in mainstreaming disaster risk reduction considerations into social, economic, urban, environmental and infrastructural planning and development.”

* I haven’t quoted directly from this document because it costs US$18.95 just to download the PDF!!


  1. Tschoegl, L. (2006) An Analytical Review of Selected Data Sets on Natural Disasters and Impacts. Brussels: CRED; 2006. (ID 218) http://www.cred.be/publications
  2. Vos F, Rodriguez J, Below R, Guha-Sapir D. Annual Disaster Statistical Review 2009: The Numbers and Trends. Brussels: CRED; 2010. (ID 269) http://www.cred.be/publications
  3. World Disasters Report 2009. Geneva: IFRC; 2009. http://www.ifrc.org/publicat/wdr2009/summaries.asp
  4. Hoyois P, Scheuren J-M, Below R, Guha-Sapir D. Annual Disaster Statistical Review 2006: The Numbers and Trends. Brussels: CRED; 2007. (ID 231) http://www.cred.be/publications
  5. http://www.ausaid.gov.au/keyaid/drrfacts.cfm
  6. Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the resilience of nations and communities to disasters. Geneva: UNISDR; 2005. http://www.unisdr.org/eng/hfa/hfa.htm
  7. Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction Geneva: UNISDR; 2009. http://www.preventionweb.net/english/hyogo/gar/report/index.php?id=1130&pid:34&pih:2
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