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1998 In Review: A Year Of Natural Disasters

Washington, 9 December 1998 (RFE-RL) -- Storms, floods, drought and fires caused record human and economic losses worldwide in 1998.

The Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-based private environmental organization, estimates in a report that these and other disasters killed 32,000 people and displaced more than 300 million from their homes during the first 11 months of this year.

Janet Abramovitz, a senior researcher at Worldwatch Institute, tells RFE/RL that according to preliminary estimates, the disasters caused at least $89 billion in economic losses globally.

Abramovitz says: "And this far exceeds the previous losses for the entire decade of the 1980s of $55 billion."

She says the total financial loss represents a 48 percent increase over the previous record of $60 billion set in 1996.

Abramovitz says that "from China to Central America, the evidence is now clear that some of the most damaging weather-related events in 1998 were 'unnatural' disasters." She says "Deforestation has left many steep hillsides bare, causing rainfall to run quickly into rivers rather than being absorbed, and often leading to devastating landslides and floods."

The costliest disaster of 1998 was the flooding of China's Yangtze River, which the institute says killed 3,700 people, dislocated 223 million people and cost $30 billion.

The study notes that heavy summer rains are common in China but also points out that the Yangtze Basin has lost 85 percent of its forest due to logging and agriculture in recent decades. It says wetlands have been drained and the river heavily dammed, increasing the speed and severity of floods.

Among the other worst 1998 disasters were:

Hurricane Mitch

During the month of November, it caused between 9,000 and 11,000 deaths in the Central American nations of Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador. Hurricane Mitch was the deadliest Atlantic storm in 200 years. Damage in Honduras alone is estimated at $4 billion, which is equal to one-third of the country's gross domestic product.

Jerry Jarrell, the director of the National Hurricane Center in the U.S. city of Miami, Florida, says coastal communities can develop effective evacuation plans to reduce the danger and deaths from storms.

Jarrell says: "We expected there to be a disaster but I don't think anyone expected 10,000 or 12,000 dead. I don't think we were giving the real flavor of the impending disaster."

Indonesian Fires

About $4.4 billion in property damage. Fires began late last year and spilled into early 1998.

Bangladesh Floods

Described as the most extensive flood in that country's history, leaving 30 million people temporarily homeless and damaging more than 15,000 kilometers of roads. Total damage is estimated at $3.4 billion.

Canada, Northeastern U.S. Ice Storms

They took place in January 1998, causing about $2.5 billion in damage.

Hurricane George

About 4,000 people killed in Haiti and the Dominican Republic when the hurricane rolled through the Caribbean area in September 1998. Damage is estimated at $2 billion.

Cyclone in India

About 10,000 people are estimated to have lost their lives when the cyclone ripped through India in June.

While meteorologists link some of the 1998 weather disasters to El Nino and its aftermath, the institute says no previous El Nino has resulted in such devastation. El Nino is an atmospheric and oceanic phenomenon which increases the water temperature around the equator in the central Pacific. El Nino generally occurs about every two to seven years between October and June and has important consequences for weather and climate around the globe.

In the United States this year, tornadoes caused wide-spread property damage and casualties.

The Worldwatch Institute says other disasters this year included fires in Siberia that burned down huge areas of forests, floods in Turkey that caused $2 billion in property damage, and extensive fires in Brazil.

Also, a winter storm in Eastern Europe resulted in more than 100 people freezing to death in early December with Poland especially hard hit. In the Romanian capital Bucharest, police say 15 people died during the first December weekend in car accidents after freezing rain turned roads into sheets of ice.

The report said: "As 1998 comes to a close, governments are beginning to recognize the role of human activities in worsening natural disasters. In China, where government officials initially denied that the Yangtze floods were anything but natural, the state council has now recognized the human factor. It has banned logging in the upper Yangtze watershed, prohibited additional land reclamation projects in the river's flood plain and earmarked $2 billion to forest the watershed."

The study concludes that unless the ravaged nations rebuild along a patch of "sustainable development that emphasizes restoring and maintaining healthy ecosystems, they risk even greater exposure to devastation of unnatural disasters in the future."