This may come as a surprise in a year that has come to be seen as a dumpster fire: Barring a catastrophe in the next week or so, disasters in 2017 caused fewer deaths across the globe than in most other years in recent history.
The charts below show annual death tolls and counts of disasters recorded since 1960 in the International Disaster Database, which keeps tabs on natural events — such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and storms — and technological disasters, like ferry sinkings and plane crashes.
“2017 has been a very clement year,” said Debarati Guha-Sapir, who heads the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in Brussels, which runs the database. “I think we should rejoice.”
In part, the low death count in 2017 comes down to luck. How many people are killed in any given year depends crucially on where earthquakes strike, where major storms make landfall, and so on.
But the charts above also tell a story of how humanity is getting better at minimizing the death toll from disasters, as economic development and better planning have increased the resilience of communities across the developing world.
According to Guha-Sapir, the rising and then falling trend for the number of events that meet the database’s disaster criteria — 10 dead or 100 people affected — mostly reflects economic development. As poor countries get richer, their vulnerability to disasters at first increases, as people crowd into cities that are largely shantytowns. But as development continues, construction and disaster planning tend to improve, and events that would once have been catastrophic pass by without major loss of life.
What’s more, some of the deadliest disasters in earlier decades were multi-year famines that are unlikely to happen today.
Between 1965 and 1967, some 1.5 million people in India starved after the monsoon rains didn’t arrive and crops failed. Today, India has a bustling, high-tech economy, its fields are irrigated, and an expanding road network means that food can be distributed rapidly when there are shortages. In India, as in many other developing countries, drought no longer means famine.
The peaks in 1983 and 1984, meanwhile, are mostly due to the drought and famine that struck Ethiopia and neighboring countries. As well as triggering the Live Aid concerts, that disaster led to the development of the Famine Early Warning System Network, which monitors data including weather conditions, satellite imagery, and food prices to sound the alarm. As long as rich nations actually respond with aid when famine looms in East Africa, we should not see a repeat of the tragedy of the mid-1980s.
But dysfunctional politics or war can still cause starvation. For example, this year South Sudan declared a famine that is a direct consequence of the young nation’s ongoing civil war.
The International Disaster Database also has a category called “complex,” for disasters with no simple cause. Heading the list is the multi-year famine that hit North Korea from 1995 to 2002. Demographers with the US Census Bureau have estimated that at least 600,000 people died in a disaster blamed largely on the Hermit Kingdom’s fractured economy.
Most of the peaks in deaths since 2000 can be blamed on earthquakes, including the magnitude 7 quake that struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in January 2010, killing more than 220,000. Earthquakes can strike at any time, and the megaquake that triggered the Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed a quarter of a million people across 14 countries on Dec. 26, 2004, serves as a ghastly reminder that 2017 isn’t over yet.
“We have not closed our files,” Guha-Sapir told BuzzFeed News.
Earthquakes themselves don’t kill people — tsunamis and falling buildings do. Just weeks after the 2010 Haiti disaster, a magnitude 8.8 earthquake, causing more than 60 times as much ground shaking as the Haiti quake, struck just off the coast of Chile. Yet thanks to strict building codes, it was not a humanitarian catastrophe: Just over 550 people died.
That’s not to say that other quake-prone countries are doing as well as Chile. In Iran, for instance, there’s a huge backlog of buildings that have not been upgraded to modern seismic safety standards.
“Tehran is huge bomb waiting to go off,” Brian Tucker, president of GeoHazards International in Menlo Park, California, a nonprofit that helps developing countries improve their seismic resilience, told BuzzFeed News.
As hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria showed in 2017, storms that brew in warm ocean waters remain a danger to coastal communities. The full economic and human costs of these disasters are still being tallied — the death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria, officially listed at 64, may rise to more than 1,000.
But bad as these events were, they pale into insignificance beside the 1970 Bhola cyclone, in which a storm surge of up to 30 feet drowned more than 300,000 people in what is now Bangladesh.
Cyclones remain a big threat in the region. In 2008, more than 130,000 people perished when Cyclone Nargis flooded Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta. But Bangladesh has taken important strides to improve its resilience. Cyclone shelters, modern weather forecasts, and better warnings for people in harm’s way mean that a disaster on the scale of the Bhola cyclone is now unlikely.
Trends like these have led some commentators to suggest that we should abandon the term “natural” disaster, to sharpen the focus on what societies can do to prevent major loss of life when storms, quakes, or droughts strike.
The blurry distinction between natural and human-caused disasters also cuts the other way. Plane crashes and ferry sinkings are often caused by a mix of human error and bad weather. An overloaded ferry may sail safely on calm seas, Roberta Weisbrod, executive director of the Worldwide Ferry Safety Association, based in New York City, told BuzzFeed News. “But if the wind picks up, it catches that instability and can cause a capsize.”
Deaths from transport disasters ramped up in the 1980s with an expansion of mass transit and air travel. But planes, at least, have gotten safer in recent years. (The majority of transport deaths, which happen continually on the world’s roads, are missing from the International Disaster Database because few individual accidents meet its “disaster” criteria.)
There are some worrying trends, however, including disasters linked to climate change. Deaths from extreme heat seem to be on the rise — the peaks below correspond to heat waves in Russia in 2010 and across southern Europe in 2003.
Wildfires also seem to be getting more deadly — although the numbers killed remain small compared to other disasters.
For Californians sifting through the ashes of their incinerated homes, the future will look bleak. But millions of people across the globe can be relieved about the disasters that didn’t happen in 2017 and look forward to the new year with optimism.
“In a lot of important ways, things are getting better,” Max Roser, an economist at the University of Oxford who chronicles trends in international development on the website Our World in Data, told BuzzFeed News. ●
Peter Aldhous is a Science Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. His secure PGP fingerprint is 225F B2AF 4B8E 6E3D B1EA 7F9A B96E BF7D 9CB2 9B16
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