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China’s Natural-Disaster Displacement Risk Quantified

China: Disaster-related displacement, 1970-2013. Source: IDMC

China: Disaster-related displacement, 1970-2013. Source: IDMC

CHINA ACCOUNTS FOR a disproportionate share of the world’s disaster-related displacement. That is not only a function of the size of its population. The country is at high-risk of being stricken by drought, seasonal floods, cyclones, earthquakes and landslides induced by the latter two.

Drought and cyclones are the most costly; earthquakes and floods the big killers. Some 130 million inhabitants are exposed to these risks. More than 8 million of them every year are at risk of being displaced, according to a new analysis of regional displacement risk by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).

Disaster-induced displacement has been increasing and is likely to continue to do so. For one, population growth and the increased concentration of people and economic activity in hazard-prone areas such as coastlines and river deltas are swelling the numbers of people exposed to natural hazards.

Second, better early warning systems and evacuation planning means that more people survive disasters even as their homes and property are damaged or destroyed. Third, climate change is making extreme weather both more frequent and severe.

The richer a country gets, the more resilient it is to natural disasters, not least of all because it has more to lose, so they take steps to protect what they have. Yet though they suffer fewer natural disasters those that do occur are more severe.

Since 2008, China has suffered three disasters that displaced more than 3 million people, five that displaced 1 million-3 million people and 34  that displaced between 100,000 and 1 million people.

All that helps explain why China has the highest absolute risk of disaster-related displacement in the region. It also ranks second in relative displacement for its population size — 6,082 displacements per million residents, after Laos’s 6,542 displacements per million inhabitants.

The IDMC predicts that over the next four years that the average number of displaced will rise to nearly 9 million and the per million ratio will rise to Laos’s current level.  Its study, which is regional, is intended to provide a forecast to help planners not so much to deal with natural disasters as to forestall their worst effects.

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Natural Disaster Dislocation In China In 2011

People make their way in flood at Guotai Village of Binyang County, southwest China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Oct. 1, 2011. About 1,180,000 residents in Guangxi were hit by Typhoon Nesat, the strongest typhoon hit China this year as of 10 a.m. of local time. A total of 63,200 people were transferred in an emergency.(Xinhua/Huang Xiaobang)
China last year was spared the large-scale population dislocations caused by natural disasters that it experienced in 2010. That year monsoon flooding, earthquakes and the like uprooted 15.2 million people from their homes. Yet the figure for 2011 was still 4.5 million, more than for any other country. And natural disasters also left 1,126 people dead or missing last year, we should not forget. It all again underlines the human cost to the vulnerability of the country to natural disasters, and why so much effort and money is being put into monitoring them, preventing them and minimizing their effects.

The numbers are collated by the International Displacement Monitoring Centre of the Norwegian Refugee Council. The Centre has been keeping track for the past four years of the effects of extreme weather and geophysical hazards such as earthquakes and volcanoes. It has just presented its most recent report to the Rio+20 environmental conference. Such is the size of China that the change in its figures between 2010 and 2011 accounts for two-fifths of decline in the worldwide number for natural-disaster dislocations from 42.3 million to 14.9 million over the same period.

Asia as a whole and China in particular is the most effected region (see table below). The biggest single displacement in 2011 was of 3.5 million people, caused by monsoon flooding in southern China. Overall, three in a thousand Chinese were displaced by natural disasters last year, which compares with three in a hundred in Sri Lanka, the country with the highest proportion of overall population displaced in 2011. China’s raw and relative numbers for the country would have been higher had the report included what it calls “slower-onset or gradual processes of environmental degradation such as drought and desertification”.

Disasters causing the largest scale displacements in 2011
Rank Country Disaster Month No. Displaced
1 China Floods Jun-Sep 3,514,000
2 Thailand Floods Aug-Jan 1,500,000
3 Philippines Floods Jan-Feb 672,131
4 India Floods Aug-Oct 570,000
5 Japan Earthquake and Tsunami March 492,000
6 Philippines Tropical Storm Washi December 441,037
7 Bangladesh Floods July 400,000
8 Japan Rain and Landslides July 400,000
9 Sri Lanka Floods January 362,646
10 China Typhoon Muifa August 360,000
13 China Typhoon Nesat Sep-Oct 300,000
30 China Earthquake (Yunnan) March 130,000
Source: International Displacement Monitoring Centre

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Companies’ Growing Role In Natural Disaster Relief

Multinationals are taking an increasingly prominent relief role in humanitarian disasters, including those in China. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, has put the subject under its microscope, finding that corporations have become a central component of the international response to natural disasters. The likes of Coca-Cola and Cisco were bigger contributors to Sichuan earthquake relief than the U.S. government (if not bigger donors than the general public). The Center sees the trend as part of an expanding notion of ‘corporate global citizenship’, though in the case of Chinese disasters, it notes, it may be as much smart local brand building.

The Center dates the trend to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It excites policymakers, for all the differences in values and organizational cultures that exist between the private and public sectors. Companies bring cash but also a new disaster assistance network through their globalized and local personnel, supply chains and customers–and a desire to protect all three. Policy makers should remain realistic in their expectations, however. Relief for both domestic and international disasters accounts for less than 3% of all corporate donations, the Center notes.

Each natural disaster is unique in its own way. Beijing had the resources to deal with the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, unlike, say the Haiti government in the wake of the 2010 earthquake there. Yet U.S. corporations still donated an estimated $110 million toward relief of the Sichuan disaster, even if they were seen as “driven by commercial calculation rather than by acute humanitarian concerns”, the Center says. Up to a further $30 million was given via the Red Cross. The U.S. government itself gave just $5 million. The Business Round Table and the U.S.-China Business Council were instrumental in corralling U.S. multinationals to give in Washington’s stead.

Here is a list of the four most generous U.S. corporate donors for the relief of the Sichuan earthquake, one of the five big disasters examined for the Center’s study. The numbers include cash, in-kind donations and employee contributions.

  • Cisco: >$45 million
  • Coca-Cola: $15.6 million
  • Procter & Gamble: $7.6 million
  • Johnson & Johnson: $5 million

Seriously generous numbers.

This is all evolving ad hoc. In the U.S., the Business Civic Leadership Center at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is emerging as the coordination point between the corporate, governmental and non-governmental organization worlds. UN agencies and the Global Economic Forum (Davos) is tickling forward the global agenda. There is interesting cooperation going on between companies and disaster relief agencies to enable corporate management and organizational skills and technologies to be deployed in the field at the time of disaster and to raise the core capacities of relief agencies over the longer term. As was demonstrated in the U.S. after Hurricane Katrina, a retailer like Wal-Mart is much more practiced than government disaster management agencies in distributing large volumes of basic supplies to a lot of people quickly. This is all beyond our immediate remit but gone into in some detail in the Center’s report, though the examples are mostly U.S.-centric.

From the ash-gushing Icelandic volcano to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, natural disasters can readily disrupt global supply chains. Disaster risk reduction may not have the feel-good factor of disaster relief for corporate donors, but private-sector engagement in these areas, though still rudimentary, is just as vital. That is not just about social responsibility. It is also, as the report notes, “about economic risk management and the longer-term vitality of consumer societies”.

While business may not be in the business of disasters, it decreasingly stands by, if it ever did, when disaster strikes. For multinationals in China, preparation is understanding where a company can be helpful and at what points in the system it can make their offers of assistance. For Chinese companies abroad, it is something to understand that this is becoming yet another dimension of being a multinational.

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The Cost Of 2011’s Earthquakes

Earthquake economic losses, 2011; Source: CATDAT

China experienced the second largest number of damaging earthquakes last year, 20, after Japan, according to the latest annual report from CATDAT, an Australian database maintained by James Daniell & Armand Vervaeck. That was five more than in 2010. While not matching up to the catastrophes in Japan and New Zealand last year, the economic toll on China was significant, as the CATDAT chart above shows. The most damaging, in terms of economic losses, was the Yingjiang quake in March, at $407 million. The Sikkim quake in September caused an estimated $200 million of damage in Tibet, CATDAT says. By way of comparison, drought, flood and other meteorological disasters caused $48 billion of damage in China last year.

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A Disastrous Half Year

With the death toll in Tibet from the recent northern Indian earthquake reaching seven, it is timely to remember that it has been a horrible year for disasters, and earthquakes in particular. Those in Japan and New Zealand were especially tragic and costly. Swiss Re, a reinsurance company, has completed its half yearly preliminary estimate of the cost of natural and manmade disasters worldwide. January to June saw economic losses of $278 billion, up from $166 billion in the same period of 2010. The Japanese quake and tsunami accounted for three quarters of the losses in the first half this year. Insured losses were $70 billion, up from $29 billion a year earlier. It was the second worse first half of the year since Sigma started keeping track.

Despite the severe drought and flooding in various parts of China in the first half of this year (and continuing into the second half, with the death toll topping 100 and more flooding possible as southern coasts brace  for Typhoons Nesat and Haitang), the country escaped the worst wrath of the weather. No Chinese event made the list of the five costliest disasters of the first half. However, one does in terms of the heaviest cost of all, life. The floods and landslides in June killed 305 people, which is fourth on Sigma’s list after the Japanese earthquake (20,362 victims), January’s floods and earthquakes in Brazil (>900) and the severe storms and tornadoes in the U.S. in April (354).

At this point, Swiss Re’s tally does not include what it calls “the full humanitarian and economic consequences of severe drought that caused wildfires and crop losses” in several parts of the world, including China. The full year report will likely make for grim reading.

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