Statistical Yearbook for Asia and the Pacific 2011
Natural disasters
Data source: EM-DAT: Emergency Events Database.

Asian and Pacific countries continue to suffer disproportionately from disasters caused by natural hazards. Disasters cause death, economic and environmental damage, and severe setbacks for social development. Recent large-scale disasters, including the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan of March 2011, highlight the value of national preparedness for disaster.

The Asian and Pacific region is vulnerable to many types of disasters, including floods, cyclones, earthquakes, drought, storm surges and tsunamis. During the past decade, on average, more than 200 million people were affected and more than 70,000 people were killed by natural disasters annually. Those figures represent 90% and 65% of the world totals, respectively.

Figure II.20 – Average annual population affected and killed by natural disasters, world regions, 2001-2010

Figure II.20  Average annual population affected and killed by natural disasters, world regions, 2001-2010

Economic damages were proportionately smaller during the same period, at 38% of the world total (based on damages in 2005 US dollars). However, even that proportion exceeds the world average in terms of the Asian and Pacific share of global production or GDP, which is currently about 29% in constant 2005 US dollars.

Figure II.21 – Average annual economic damage for natural disaster, world regions, 2001-2010

Figure II.21  Average annual economic damage for natural disaster, world regions, 2001-2010

Asian and Pacific countries have a high vulnerability to the impacts of disasters. With increasing urbanization, migration patterns and population growth in general, people are occupying high-risk areas in greater numbers than ever, increasing their vulnerability to disaster impacts.

Disasters do not respect borders or distinguish between income levels; however, the effect of disasters on human lives tends to be the lowest in high-income countries. In Asia-Pacific high income countries, about 1 person in every 1,000 people was affected by disasters and 1 in 1 million died during the 10 years from 2001 to 2010; in low-income countries nearly 30 in 1,000 people were affected and 52 in 1 million people killed. More people in the lower-middle income group were affected than people in the low-income countries, although the mortality ratio in the lower-middle group was lower.

Figure II.22 – Affected people from natural disasters on total population, annual average 2001-2010

Figure II.22  Affected people from natural disasters on total population, annual average 2001-2010

Figure II.23 – Economic damage from natural disasters, annual average 2001-2010

Figure II.23  Economic damage from natural disasters, annual average 2001-2010

Assessing economic impact of natural disasters: A mix of stock-and-flow indicators

Natural disasters affect the economy immediately and directly, as well as having a long-term impact. In most disasters, the bulk of immediate damage comes from destroyed assets (stock), such as buildings, infrastructure, inventories and growing crops. Disasters also generate short- and long-term losses in economic activity and income (flow) in the affected area, as people and companies lose their means of production and access to markets.

Economic activity picks up gradually throughout the years of reconstruction, starting with emergency response and humanitarian assistance. Capital assets can be regenerated through reconstruction investment, which generates income as the work progresses.

For purposes of national and international use, disaster damages are commonly presented in relation with GDP. The ratio of a stock indicator (assets accumulated over a long period and suddenly damaged in the affected region) to a flow indicator (goods and services produced in the whole country within a year) is calculated in order to relate the scale of different disasters among different countries rather than for its sound methodological connection.

Research findings regarding the long-term impact of disasters on GDP are mixed. In some cases disasters initially dented the GDP but eventually brought benefits such as agricultural production, industrial output and capital formation picked up in greater scale and volume than before. Climatic disasters such as storms and droughts had, according to one study,1 moderate but negative, permanent impact on income growth (amounting to less than 1%) and on real GDP per capita; whereas geological disasters such as earthquakes did not have a statistically significant impact on output.

Considering numbers of people affected alone, the two subregions that suffered the greatest impacts are East and North-East Asia and South and South-West Asia. Between 2001 and 2010, the combined totals of victims in those two subregions were 94% of all those affected by natural disasters in Asia and the Pacific.

In South-East Asia, many more people died as a result of natural disasters from 2001 to 2010 than during the previous decade, mainly because of two extreme events: the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2004 and Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008.

From 2001 to 2010, the proportion of those affected among the total population was highest in East and North-East Asia: 86 out of 1,000, compared with just 3 out of 1,000 in both North and Central Asia and in the Pacific. The number and severity of disasters caused by natural hazards varies from year to year, while the selection of time frame is an artefact that affects reporting. For example, in the Pacific subregion from 2001 to 2010, an average of 200,000 people were affected by disasters annually; however, a closer look at the annual data reveals that 500,000 were affected in 2010 while only 9,000 in 2006.

Figure II.24 – Proportion of people affected and killed by natural disasters, Asia and the Pacific subregions, annual averages 1991-2000 and 2001-2010

Figure II.24  Proportion of people affected and killed by natural disasters, Asia and the Pacific subregions, annual averages 1991-2000 and 2001-2010

Recent history shows that low-income countries can reduce loss of life with effective preparations against natural disasters. Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh killed far fewer people in 2007 than did Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar a year later. The economic damage in the case of Bangladesh was also much less than that in Myanmar.

The year 2010 was particularly bad in terms of the number and severity of disasters in the region. Wildfires and extreme temperatures swept through the Russian Federation, contributing to the nearly 56,000 deaths due to natural disaster in the Russian Federation, while the floods in Pakistan raised deaths due to natural disaster to over 2,100 with over 18 million people affected. The record floods in Pakistan contributed to the large economic damages and losses experienced by Pakistan in 2010 (US$7.4 billion) making it the most costly year with respect to natural disasters in at least 20 years. In China, earthquakes, storms, floods, landslides and other disasters killed a total of over 7,000 people and affected 145 million people. The Pacific subregion was severely affected in 2009 when wildfires swept through Australia and an earthquake of magnitude 8.1 hit Samoa, followed by a tsunami.

Preparedness saves the nation: Comparison of differential impacts of cyclones in Bangladesh (2007) and Myanmar (2008)

  Bangladesh: Cyclone Sidr, 2007 Myanmar: Cyclone Nargis, 2008
Tidal wave (and storm surge) 5 to 6 metres 3.5 to 7.0 metres
Wind speed 240 km/hr 255 km/hr
Population evacuated 3 million None
Deaths 3,406 84,537
Missing 1,001 53,836
Population “severely” affected 1 million 2.4 million
Total losses and damage US$1,674 million US$4,134 million
Human Development Index (2007) 140 132
Per capita GDP (2007 values) PPP$1,400 PPP$1,900
Population below poverty line (2004) 45% 33%
Source: USAID, 2008. Available from

Complex disaster of 2011 in Japan

On 11 March 2011, a powerful earthquake of magnitude 9.0 struck about 130 kilometres off the coast of Japan. It was the most powerful earthquake ever to have hit Japan, and the fourth strongest recorded in the world. The initial structural damage from the earthquake left 4.4 million2 households without electricity. The Japanese Cabinet Office estimated in March 2011 that the cost of damaged houses, factories and infrastructure such as roads and bridges in the seven most affected prefectures ranged from US$198 to US$309 billion.3 Even a country with the world’s most advanced state of preparedness could not deal with a disaster of this scale.

While the huge scale of the earthquake was historic, most of the devastation was caused by the waves of the subsequent tsunami that reached a maximum run-up height of around 40 metres, about the height of a 10-story building. The Pacific coastal areas in the Iwate Prefecture and the northern part of Miyagi Prefecture were known to be vulnerable to tsunamis and had preventive 10 metre high dykes, buildings and shelters for evacuation, marked evacuation routes and periodic drills before the disaster, which proved helpful but did not prevent loss of life. The force of the waves caused the collapse of even the highest breakwater wall in Kamaishi (63 metres high from the sea floor and 1,960 metres long). The Port and Airport Research Institute of Japan estimated, however, that the wall did reduce wave energy by as much as 40% and that the flood-water would, without the wall, have reached up to twice as high as it actually did and caused much greater damage.

In comparison, the coastal areas of Fukushima Prefecture and the southern part of Miyagi Prefecture had not been considered as vulnerable to tsunamis as were Iwate and northern Miyagi. In the event they were, however, the hardesthit areas, suffering inundation over approximately 400 square kilometres. The combined death toll and the number of missing exceeded 25,000 as of June 2011. Many of the affected cities were home to ageing populations that were unable to escape in time, as the first tsunami waves arrived within 30 minutes after the earthquake.

The earthquake and the tsunami caused fires and disrupted transport and communication systems. Most visible to international media audiences was the battle to gain control of the seriously damaged nuclear power plants in Fukushima. Even though the reactors automatically shut down seconds after the initial earthquakes, the tsunami damaged the cooling systems in the six core reactors that contained a mix of uranium and plutonium as well as radioactive waste. Residents within a 30-kilometre radius of the plants were evacuated as radiation in the atmosphere rose to unsafe levels.

1Claudio Raddatz, “The wrath of God: Macroeconomic costs of natural disasters”, Policy Research Working Paper No. 5039 (Washington, D.C., The World Bank, September 2009). Available from 000158349_20091105181816/Rendered/PDF/WPS5039.pdf.

2 NHK World, Japan International Broadcasting, Inc. ( on 11 March 2011.

3 Japanese Cabinet Office, “The economic impact from Great East Japan Earthquake" June 2011p.7 keizai_prism/backnumber/h23pdf/20119102.pdf.

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