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World: Analysis From Washington -- Disasters And Development

Washington, 25 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Natural disasters are increasingly undermining the ability of poorer countries to develop economically, thus compounding all the other problems they face and leaving them ever further behind the developed countries of the West.

That is the sobering conclusion of the annual World Disasters Report released this week by the International Red Cross in Geneva. Not only did natural disasters like floods and earthquakes kill more people last year than did armed conflicts, but they increasingly hit the poorer countries who are least able to respond.

One of the reasons for this pattern is that developing countries have far higher population growth rates than do wealthier ones. Another and especially critical factor is that the people of the former increasingly crowd areas of especial risk -- seashores, river valleys, and seismically active regions. At present, the report said, 40 of the 50 most rapidly growing cities in these countries are located in areas afflicted by frequent earthquakes.

And yet a third is that the number of people affected by such natural disasters has grown so fast that the countries in which they live cannot get disaster insurance and that potential donor countries are confronted with more challenges than they feel they have the resources to meet.

Such disasters -- which affected 5.5 million people last year, up from fewer than 500,000 six years ago -- are first and foremost immediate human tragedies, be they the droughts in Iran or Iraq, the aftermath of earthquakes in the Caucasus or Central Asia, or flooding in Eastern Europe. But they have broader economic and political consequences for the countries where they take place, for the developed world, and for relations between the poorest countries and the wealthier ones.

Peter Walker, the director of disaster policy at the Red Cross, said in releasing the report that "we used to look at these natural disasters as blips on the screen of a country's development. But now they really change the development future of a country."

Poor countries hit by such disasters frequently can neither address the human tragedies involved nor continue their development programs. That means that the poor countries are likely to get poorer not only relatively but even absolutely, a pattern that threatens their stability and prospects for the development of civil societies and democratic regimes.

Such disasters and their consequences thus present a broad challenge to the developed world both immediately and in the longer term. Faced with so many natural disasters which by their very nature no one is specifically to blame, few Western countries can mobilize their own populations to make the kind of contributions that would be necessary to address the problems at hand.

But to the extent these problems are not addressed, the developed countries of the West are likely to find their access to the natural resources found in the developing world limited and the peoples and governments there unable to purchase Western goods and hostile to following Western political models.

And all of these developments set the stage for a new set of tensions between the "have" and the "have-not" countries, tensions that leaders in one or the other may try to exploit against the wealthiest countries, both directly and through international agencies like the United Nations.

To the extent that happens, the world would again be divided in ways that might generate political and military conflicts just as serious as those which occurred during the Cold War. And thus the natural disasters that the Red Cross has pointed to will become not only human tragedies for the people who suffer directly but political tragedies for everyone else as well.