Statistical Yearbook for Asia and the Pacific 2012
F. Environment
F.5. Natural disasters

In recent years, the Asian and Pacific region has been hit by a series of shocks. These include natural disasters, such as earthquakes, droughts or floods, while others are related to economic crises or rocketing food and energy prices, the result of a complex combination of shocks. Governments across the region can no longer afford to consider such events individually; they need a more comprehensive and systemic approach to building resilience. Resilience in this sense means the capacity of countries to withstand, adapt to and recover from natural disasters and major crises so that populations can continue to lead the lives they value. In this context, preparedness will save both lives and costs in the future.

Asia and the Pacific is the world’s most disaster-prone region, registering the largest number of people affected, as well as the largest number of people killed, by disasters between 2002 and 2011.

Over the past three decades, the frequency of natural disasters has increased globally but the sharpest increase has been in the Asian and Pacific region (see figure F.5-1) partly as a result of better reporting, but also because of increasing exposure and vulnerability. Exposure to hazards has multiplied with the growth of unplanned urbanization and the concentration of people and economic activities in hazard-prone areas. In the past decade, a person living in Asia and the Pacific was 3.2 times more likely to be affected by a natural disaster than a person living in Africa, 5.5 times more likely than a person in Latin America and the Caribbean, almost 9 times more likely than a person living in North America and 67 times more likely than a person in Europe (see figure F.5-2). In the past decade (2002-2011), about 2.2 billion people in the Asian and Pacific region were affected by disasters and almost 750,000 were killed (see figure F.5-3). These last two numbers are the largest among the world’s regions and represent almost 90 per cent and 65 per cent, respectively, of the global totals. The number of deaths in the region during this period is almost four times the number of deaths for the previous decade (1992- 2001).

Figure F.5-1
Number of reported natural disasters, world regions, 1980-2011

Figure F.5-1 Number of reported natural disasters, world regions, 1980-2011In the region, the highest percentage of deaths was observed in South-East Asia, at 47 per cent, followed by 28 per cent in South and South-West Asia. These two percentages changed greatly from the previous to the most recent decade; between 1992 and 2001, only 14 per cent of the region’s total deaths were observed in South-East Asia, whereas 64 per cent of the deaths for that period were registered in South and South-West Asia.

Figure F.5-2
People affected by natural disasters, world regions, 2002-2011

Figure F.5-2 People affected by natural disasters, world regions, 2002-2011

Figure F.5-2 People affected by natural disasters, world regions, 2002-2011According to the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT)1 , the most frequently occurring hazards in the region are hydro-meteorological and they affect the largest number of people. Since 2000, more than 1.2 billion people have been exposed to 1,215 hydro-meteorological hazards alone, compared with the 355 million people exposed to 394 climatological, biological and geophysical disaster events during the same period. A study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that, while typhoons and other climate-related disasters are not increasing in number, more of them are stronger, making the region more susceptible to greater potential losses.2 Furthermore, people and assets are increasingly concentrated in hazardous areas, with many cities located on earthquake fault lines and river deltas.

Figure F.5-3
People killed by natural disasters, world regions, 2002-2011

Figure F.5-3 People killed by natural disasters, world regions, 2002-2011

Figure F.5-3 People killed by natural disasters, world regions, 2002-2011

While losses and damage have been rising, low-income economies have been much harder hit in relative terms.

Globally, over the past 20 years, the pattern of losses has been dominated by the increasing frequency of disasters (see figure F.5-4). At the same time, disasters have been causing greater economic damage.3 Even the most prepared countries are vulnerable to disasters, as was seen in the earthquake in Japan in 2011. In absolute terms, disasters may cause greater economic damage in high-income economies, which tend to have more developed infrastructure; however, in relative terms, low-income economies are much harder hit.

Figure F.5-4
Rising global economic losses and damage, 1980-2012

Figure F.5-4 Rising global economic losses and damage, 1980-2012

For example, in terms of income classification, between 2002 and 2011, the average annual impact of disasters as a percentage of GDP was more than twice as high in low-income economies than it was in lower-middle-income, upper-middle-income and high-income economies (see figure F.5-5). In the Asian and Pacific region, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu are among the countries the most at risk to natural disasters due to their high exposure and vulnerability to damage. The impact can be particularly severe in Pacific island developing economies, in many cases causing damage and losses that represent multiples of the country’s total annual output (see figure F.5-6).

Figure F.5-5
Asian and Pacific average annual impact of disasters by income classification, 2002-2011

Figure F.5-5 Asian and Pacific average annual impact of disasters by income classification, 2002-2011However, not all countries are equally vulnerable to disasters, and experiences have shown that money spent on reducing the risk of natural hazards is a sound investment. Because they are at a relatively high risk, countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Japan and the Philippines have taken positive steps to mitigate the risks, which has resulted in lower human and economic losses from disasters. Studies by the United Nations Development Programme provide further evidence for such claims, showing that every dollar invested in preparedness saves seven dollars in the aftermath of a disaster.4 In the United States of America, one dollar spent on mitigation generates four dollars in future saving. Furthermore, spending between 1993 and 2003 to mitigate the effects of floods, hurricanes, tornados and earthquakes is expected to save more than 220 lives and prevent almost 4,700 injuries over approximately 50 years. Yet only 1 per cent of international aid is spent on minimizing the impacts of such disasters. Investing in disaster risk reduction reaps direct benefits in financial and non-financial ways, and building resilience is key to achieving sustainable development.5

Figure F.5-6
Economic damage as a percentage of GDP in selected Pacific island developing economies

Figure F.5-6 Economic damage as a percentage of GDP in selected Pacific island developing economiesIn an era of globalization, with ever-closer links between countries in the region, disasters caused by natural hazards can reverberate across national boundaries. Disasters therefore demand transnational solutions, enabled through an effective framework for regional cooperation by pooling resources for better preparedness and by the strengthening of early warning systems.

Box F.5-1
The pressing need to improve disaster databases, technical standards and methodologies

If Governments and their partners are to prepare effectively for disasters and respond rapidly, they need timely and reliable data. Currently, the lack of disaster databases presents a critical challenge that hinders evidence-based policymaking. This stems from data collection not being a priority after disasters due to (a) the presence of many stakeholders, (b) a lack of training among national disaster-management agency staff, and (c) the fact that, even though national statistical office staff have the skills, they may not be involved in collecting disaster-related data. Governments should therefore prepare in advance the systems and protocols for collecting data during emergencies, aiming to ensure consistency in reporting and methodology. The shortage of disaster data in many countries makes it challenging to document the cost-effectiveness of investments in preparedness and to integrate disaster risk reduction measures into national development plans.

Inconsistencies between global disaster data found on EM-DAT and those found on government-owned databases are another reason behind the need for reliable data. For example, in Indonesia, the total number of deaths from disasters in 2011 was 129 according to EM-DAT, while the figure stated on the national online government-owned database was 360. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, the total deaths from disasters recorded in 2011 was 254 based on EM-DAT, compared with 130 deaths recorded on the national online governmentowned database. Such discrepancies may be the result of using secondary sources of data for EM-DAT. Since countries form policies based on the data they themselves collect, there is an urgent need to build the capacity of countries to collect and compile disaster data.

Without reliable baseline data, effective disaster monitoring and poverty maps, it is difficult to locate and assist the poor and most vulnerable when disasters hit. A full vulnerability assessment and the establishment of baseline data, including poverty levels at the subnational level, is a good starting point. Until recently, both Governments and development partners would have been daunted by this task, feeling they lacked the necessary resources or skills. Nowadays, however, they can take advantage of new and innovative technology. A number of Governments, including those of Indonesia and the Philippines, have been using satellite data and geographic information systems to produce multi-hazard maps showing where the poor are at greatest risk. Indonesia has been using such techniques as the basis for one of its main anti-poverty, community empowerment programmes. Data are fed into an information management system that keeps track of all poverty programmes, resources and beneficiaries across the country. As a result, the Government has a clearer picture of the gaps and can design the necessary interventions.

Source: United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, from Desinventar Project Team, Disaster Information System Database. Available from (accessed 20 May 2012).

Box F.5-2
Drought and food scarcity – the creeping disaster

Though people often associate natural disasters with sudden-onset events such as floods, typhoons and tsunamis, slow-onset, chronic disasters such as droughts can be just as, if not more, devastating. Between 1982 and 2012, 1.3 billion people in China and India were affected by drought, and countries (mostly Australia, China and the Islamic Republic of Iran) suffered almost $27 million worth of damage. Droughts, combined with land and water stress, can result in declining agricultural productivity, which impacts the availability of food. Spikes in food prices will also hurt the poor, driving them into further hardship.

Many countries in the Asian and Pacific region still base much of their food security and economies on agriculture, highlighting the fact that drought is of particular concern for the region. Almost 90 per cent of water withdrawal in Asia and the Pacific is for agricultural purposes, though this varies significantly by country, with Malaysia and the Russian Federation withdrawing about 20 per cent for agriculture, and countries such as Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, Thailand and Uzbekistan withdrawing about 90 per cent or more. Water scarcity is already a great concern for the region with almost 380 million people without access to clean water, despite the fact that domestic consumption accounts for only 6 to 9 per cent of the total water withdrawal (for a further discussion, refer to topic F.3 on water availability and use).

The use and management of land can also affect the water cycle. Deforestation reduces cloud-forming evapotranspiration and thus decreases rainfall, resulting in a drier local climate and accelerated ecosystem changes. The use and management of land may not only affect agricultural production but also reduce the capacity of the soil to absorb rainfall, potentially making flooding worse (for a further discussion on forest cover in the region, refer to topic F.4 on biodiversity, protected areas and forests). Land degradation and desertification is a serious problem that affects the availability of agricultural land. For example, in South Asia and South- East Asia, 74 per cent of agricultural land has been severely affected by wind or water erosion or has been polluted to the extent that it is no longer productive.a Desertification affects about 1.4 billion hectares of land in Asia, with millions of people relying on it for survival.

Climate change risks worsen all of these problems, and increased water stress and drought, as well as decreased agricultural productivity, are forecasted for some areas. Such risks add further pressure on countries, which may also face more frequent and severe hydro-meteorological events such as storms and floods. Managing the resources that the region has left in a sustainable manner is the first step required to build resilience to these impending disasters.

a ESCAP, Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in Asia and the Pacific (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.09.II.F.12).

Further reading

ESCAP. Building Resilience to Natural Disasters and Major Economic Crises (ST/ESCAP/2655) Theme study for the sixty-ninth ESCAP Commission session. Bangkok, 2013.

ESCAP and United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. Asia Pacific Disaster Report 2012: Reducing Vulnerability and Exposure to Disasters (ST/ESCAP/2639). Bangkok, 2012.

United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction. Geneva, 2013.

Technical notes

Natural disaster event: According to the EMDAT definition, a natural disaster event is a disruptive natural event that overwhelms local capacities to restore order, necessitating a request to the national or international level for external assistance. It is an unforeseen and often sudden event that causes great damage, destruction and human suffering. Though often caused by nature, disasters also have human origins. Wars and civil disturbances that destroy homelands and displace people are included among causes of disasters. Other causes are structural collapse, blizzards, drought, epidemics, earthquakes, explosions, fire, floods, hazardous material or transportation incidents (such as a chemical spill), hurricanes, nuclear incidents, tornados or volcanoes.

Types and hazards of natural disasters

Drought: Triggered by a lack of precipitation, an extended period characterized by a deficiency in water supply that is the result of constantly below-average precipitation. A drought can lead to agricultural losses, affect inland navigation and hydropower plants, and cause a lack of drinking water and famine.

Earthquake: Shaking and displacement of ground due to seismic waves; that is, the earthquake itself without secondary effects. Earthquakes are the result of a sudden release of stored energy in the Earth’s crust that creates seismic waves. They can be of tectonic or volcanic origin. At the Earth’s surface they are felt as a shaking or displacement of the ground. The energy released in the hypocentre can be measured in different frequency ranges. Different scales are thus used in measuring the magnitude of an earthquake according to a certain frequency range. They are surface wave magnitude, body wave magnitude, local magnitude and moment magnitude.

Flood: A significant rise of the water level in a stream, lake, reservoir or coastal region.

Storm: Any disturbed state of the atmosphere of an astronomical body, especially one that affects its surface and strongly implies severe weather. It may be marked by strong wind, thunder and lightning (a thunderstorm), heavy precipitation such as ice (an ice storm) or wind that carries some substance through the atmosphere (as in a dust storm, snowstorm or hailstorm).

Volcano: All volcanic activity such as rock fall, ash fall, lava streams and gases. Volcanic activity includes both the transport of magma or gases or both to the Earth’s surface, which can be accompanied by tremors and eruptions, and the interaction of magma and water (for example, groundwater or crater lakes) underneath the Earth’s surface, which can result in phreatic eruptions. Depending on the composition of the magma, eruptions can be explosive and effusive and result in variations of rock fall, ash fall, lava streams, pyroclastic flows or the emission of gases.

Wildfire: A fire burning uncontrolled, usually in wild lands, that can cause damage to forestry, agriculture, infrastructure and buildings.


Mortalities from natural disasters (number per annum, per million population)
The number of recorded deaths from natural disasters, expressed as a number in a year or the average number over a period of years. Indicator calculations: Per million population figures are based on population figures (WPP2012). Aggregate calculations: Sum of individual country values (number per annum); sum of deaths divided by total population (per million population). Missing data are not imputed.

People affected by natural disasters (thousands per annum, per 1,000 population)
Affected people are those requiring immediate assistance, including food, water, shelter, sanitation and immediate medical assistance, during an emergency. The definition includes cases of infectious disease introduced in a region or a population that is normally free from that disease. Indicator calculations: Per 1,000 population figures are based on population figures (WPP2012). Aggregate calculations: Sum of individual country values (thousands per annum); sum of affected people divided by sum of population (per 1,000 population). Missing data are not imputed.

Economic damage from natural disasters (million 2005 United States dollars per annum, percentage of GDP)
Economic consequences of a disaster, usually direct (for example, damage to infrastructure, crops and housing) and indirect (for example, loss of revenues, unemployment and market destabilization). In each case, the registered figure represents the value of damage at the moment of the event; that is, the figures are true for the year of the event. Indicator calculations: Data are converted from millions of United States dollars to millions of 2005 United States dollars using implicit price deflators (NAMAD). The proportion of GDP is based on million United States dollar values from EM-DAT divided by GDP in current United States dollars. Aggregate calculations: Sum of individual country values (million 2005 United States dollars per annum); sum of the economic damage in million United States dollars divided by the sum of GDP in million United States dollars (percentage of GDP). Missing data are not imputed.


Source of natural disaster data: EM-DAT. The database is based on various sources, including United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations, insurance companies, research institutes and press agencies. Data obtained: 14 August 2013.

1 Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, Emergency Events Database. Available from (accessed 16 May 2013).
2 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report (Geneva, 2007).
3 ESCAP, Building Resilience to Natural Disasters and Economic Crises, (ST/ESCAP/2655) Theme study for the sixty-ninth ESCAP Commission session (Bangkok, 2013).
4 See
5 Multihazard Mitigation Council, Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: An Independent Study to Assess the Future Savings from Mitigation Activities (Washington, DC, National Institute of Building Sciences, 2005).
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