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BMJ. 2007 August 18; 335(7615): 321.
PMCID: PMC1949455

Extreme weather affects half a billion people each year

In the wake of unprecedented flooding across the world, humanitarian agencies are appealing for immediate help and warning that serious planning efforts must be made to mitigate disasters, given the likelihood of increasing devastation from the effects of global warming.

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said, “Severe flooding has affected tens of millions of people around the world in recent weeks and months, including Bangladesh, China, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sudan. From Dhaka to Khartoum, officials say they are seeing the heaviest rains in decades and, in some cases, recent memory.”

The federation estimates that 35 million people have been affected in South Asia, while a “staggering” 200 million people have been affected by the floods in China.

Not only have millions of people been displaced, but it is feared that a lack of clean drinking water will result in widespread outbreaks of waterborne diseases, such as diarrhoea, skin infections, and malaria.

Agencies are rushing medical and relief supplies to areas affected by the flooding and providing shelter, clean water, health care, and sanitation for thousands of communities in an attempt to prevent possible epidemics from contamination by sewage and disruption to water supplies. The risk is compounded by the inevitable effects of sudden mass homelessness, causing large numbers of people to crowd together in insanitary conditions.

Cholera is reported to be spreading in Bangladesh, where local authorities report that more than a million homes have been destroyed by floodwaters in recent weeks. In India doctors have been asked to forgo their August holidays to help cope with the consequences of record monsoon rainfall across wide areas.

The United Nations' Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned: “The last decade has seen a marked increase in the occurrence of natural disasters, along with exposure to greater levels of loss of life, property, and material damage. The lives of millions of civilians are at risk each time an earthquake, hurricane, or other natural disaster occurs, particularly in poor countries with less developed infrastructures, high population densities, and inadequate emergency preparedness.”

“There is a greater occurrence of extreme events,” said Margareta Wahlström, the UN's deputy emergency relief coordinator. “The great risk is that large numbers of people are living in the most vulnerable areas in the world.” She said that weather related events now accounted for about 55% to 65% of all disasters in the world every year.

Between 2004 and 2006 the number of such emergencies had increased from 200 to 400 a year, with floods increasing from 60 to 100 a year, affecting “about 500 million people annually and placing great demands on the international humanitarian system.”

Despite lessened death tolls resulting from early warning systems and preparedness efforts, “floods still took lives and devastated livelihoods, infrastructure, housing, and healthcare systems,” she said.

Flood plains, river deltas, and coasts—the areas most vulnerable to flooding and cyclones—attract large populations because of their fertility and other advantages, and people were loath to leave them. The Philippines had been hit by five cyclones in quick succession, causing landslides and massive displacement. But with the end of each emergency people had returned to the devastated areas.

Ms Wahlström said it was “human nature” for people to return to their home region. “The challenge to countries, to organisations, and to individuals is: can we change our behaviour so that we reduce the impact of these events, knowing that, over the next 20 years, for sure, we will have more serious weather related events?”

Launching an Oxfam emergency appeal for South Asia last week, the charity's regional director for South Asia, Ashvin Dayal, said, “Across the region people are struggling to cope with what is for many the worst flooding in living memory. Millions of the very poorest have lost their homes, their possessions, and their livelihoods . . . These floods show how important it is for governments and the international community to be prepared for when disasters strike.”

Notes

For more information see www.oxfam.org.uk and www.reliefweb.int.


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