Publications > Poverty Times #3 > Fragilised environments

Poverty Times #3

Fragilised environments

Some places are more prone to disaster than others. But what does it take to turn a cyclone into a disaster in one place and just a climatic event somewhere else? The main reasons are obvious enough. Economically deprived people living in shacks are more likely to suffer from any calamity. Rich countries may have more to lose fi nancially, but they also have more resources for anticipating hazards. There are many ways of determining vulnerability, apart from economic factors: previous environmental damage leaving barren land, nearby industrial sites aggravating a hazard’s potential, poor social organisation and transparency, shortage of key resources, etc. Whatever you focus on, developing countries seem – predictably – to be the most frequent and most vulnerable victims of disasters


The planet is scattered with hazardous or explosive leftovers from a succession of technical breakthroughs – be they military or industrial – just waiting to be washed away by a fl ood or mudslide or carried off by a hurricane.

If disaster strikes these “powder kegs” multiply the danger to people and the environment (posing a particularly acute threat to already scarce water resources).

Not all industries are potential powder kegs. But many by-products and effl uents can be hazardous, and storage may also pose problems. The following sectors are a source of potential concern: chemicals (including pesticide stockpiles); mining (tailings being the prime concern); arms and energy production (oil, gas and nuclear).

Literal powder kegs exist in numerous countries in the form of unexploded ordnance, a missile on an mountain side in Afghanistan for example, bombs dropped in World War II that are still found occasionally, landmines that turn vast areas of previously fertile agricultural land into unusable zones.

Economies AT RISK

Agriculture as well as fishing need a healthy environment. Countries whose economy depends mostly on these resources will probably take many years to recover if the basis of their production is damaged.

Tourism is equally dependent on an intact environment for its prosperity. It doesn’t have to be as devastating an event as the recent tsunamis that literally washed away large parts of the tourism industry all around the Indian Ocean. A country’s economy depending heavily on toursim can already suffer from an oil spill, such as on the Atlantic coast of Spain and France where the number of visitors is reduced for years in reaction to the sinking of the tanker Prestige.

Through complex linkages of the globalised economy damage to industrialised countries can happen indirectly, as was the case after the 1999 earthquake in Taiwan where the Californian production line was interrupted because the supply of components from Taiwan had ceased.


Deforestation is well known for aggravating erosion. Bare soil has no protection against heavy rain, washing away immediately. On hillsides, it readily turns into mudslides leaving people very little time to seek refuge and cutting deep ravines into the earth. And where deforested land was turned into cultivated fi elds, the soil is likely to be overused and exploited through intensive use of fertiliser.

Forest fi res in particular increase CO2 emissions, and reducing forest coverage reduces capacity to absorb CO2 emitted by various human activities. CO2 is a key contributor to climate change, and scientists mostly agree that climate change will lead to an increased risk for disasters.

NO shelter

Most of the Earth’s population lives on the coast, with a grandstand view of sea-borne natural disasters – and an immense vulnerability to all hazards that come from the sea. The population around the Indian Ocean faced the deadly waves following the strongest earthquake in forty years without a warning.

In the face of any calamity we instinctively take refuge under a roof. This is little use against a chemical or nuclear accident, but for many there is no other resort. The number of people currently living in shanty towns is rising in all the big cities of the developing world, where urban growth is generally uncontrolled. The map shows how small the proportion of city dwellers with improved access to sanitation in many places is, giving an idea of the number and location of people living in precarious conditions.

It is very diffi cult to estimate homelessness in the world, but refugee fi gures are available, their numbers increasing with each new confl ict.

CRUSHED by war

For people in countries at war or subject to economic embargos many goods are scarce, food and water constituting the most crucial shortages. But they also have to deal regularly with death and injury. In such countries disaster prevention may well not be a priority.

The PRIO database was developed by the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo and the Uppsala University. Its aim is to provide a basis for a better understanding of the geographical extension of confl icts. For more information on the PRIO database and the calculation method contact the Internaitonal Peace Research Institute in Oslo.