WASHINGTON — Reported deaths in natural disasters worldwide are down tenfold since the '60s, even though the number of natural disasters is up sharply, according to Princeton University geoscientists.
The reason is better responses to floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and other environmental catastrophes, according to a paper in the October issue of Geotimes, which is published by the American Geological Institute.
What was the key to the better responses? Perhaps how democratic the afflicted country was and how rich, according to principal author Gregory E. van der Vink. He and co-researchers found, to their surprise, that a country's level of democracy and wealth proved better predictors of death tolls in natural disasters than how catastrophic the event was or the density of population at its epicenter.
"When we look at vulnerability to disasters," van der Vink said in an interview Wednesday, "we're going to have to go beyond probability, magnitude and population density, and factor in the form of government and a country's capacity to respond." He theorizes that, generally speaking, the more accountable a government is to its people, the better the response to disasters.
The study wasn't peer-reviewed, van der Vink noted, so its findings, while based on authoritative figures, will face further review and research.
According to David Applegate, the senior adviser for earthquake and geologic hazards at the U.S. Geological Survey, the paper "makes a strong case" that a country's resilience in disaster is "directly related to its participatory governance." Applegate wasn't involved with the study.
Reducing international hazards is becoming an important line of research and planning among nations that are confronting unpredictable natural disasters associated with global warming. Especially hazardous, van der Vink said, are events that are extremely unusual in the areas in which they occur: Think of a blizzard in Atlanta vs. a blizzard in Boston.
In a finding that may be some balm to global-warming anxieties, van der Vink's study found that the percentage of the global population that died in natural disasters decreased tenfold between the 1964-68 period and the 2000-2004 period. At the same time, the number of recorded disasters increased from an average of 64 per year to 332 per year.
For their findings about the contributions of democracy and national wealth, van der Vink and co-researcher Peter DiFiore, aided by a Princeton geoscience seminar class, reviewed thousands of disasters in 133 countries. They used adjusted gross domestic product figures for each country at the time of each disaster, plus a contemporaneous World Bank democracy score for each country.
That score is based on expert ratings of factors such as accountability, freedom of expression, regulatory quality, rule of law and control of corruption.
Top score: Finland at 2.47. The United States' score is 1.4; the global median is minus 0.3.
The study found that more than 80 percent of the disaster deaths from 1964 through 2004 occurred in 15 countries, among them China, Ethiopia, Sudan, Indonesia and Bangladesh. At that time, nearly three-quarters of the 15 countries were below the median global gross domestic product and the median grade on the World Bank's democracy index.
Most other countries showed the same pattern: The more democratic and/or rich they were, the fewer of their citizens died in natural disasters.
"It was a startling result," van der Vink said.
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