The countries most and least likely to be affected by a natural disaster

16 September 2016 5 min. read
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Natural disasters cause considerable harm to people, infrastructure and economies. Different countries around the world are affected differently by similar natural disasters, based on a range of social dimensions, from coping capabilities to adaption efforts. In a new report, the United Nations University Institute for Environment and partners develop a WorldRiskIndex to map out the countries most at risk of a number of natural disasters, as well as consider their preparedness for the effects of climate change.

Natural disasters can have a dire effect on local populations and economies. From earthquakes to floods, death tolls can rise quickly, and, in the case of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, secondary effects can be costly. The threat of natural disasters remains ever present, the ability for local populations to weather the storm, is dependent on a host of regional and social factors, from the strength of infrastructure to the resources to cope with a disaster. Changing climate conditions, as a result of changes to climate around the world, is also project to cause considerable chaos in a number of regions around the world, requiring countries to implement adaptions to meet future natural disaster trends.

The latest edition of the ‘World Risk Report’, from the United Nations University Institute for Environment, Bündnis Entwicklung Hilft and Human Security (UNU-EHS), in cooperation with the University of Stuttgart, ranks 171 countries around the world in its WorldRiskIndex, from the most vulnerable to the effects of a natural disaster to the least.

Natural disaster events and cost

Global natural disasters

Natural disasters are often relatively unpredictable events that cause widespread destruction, from the recent floods in China, which took more than 800 lives and caused more than $33 billion in damages, to the earthquake in Italy, which took more than 250 lives and destroyed several picturesque villages. Large scale natural disasters, such as the Boxing Day earthquake (Sumatra–Andaman earthquake) and subsequent tsunami killed between 250,000 and 280,000 people, while the 9.0 magnitude Tohoku earthquake off the Pacific resulted in an estimated $300 billion in direct damages to Japan.

According to the report, the number of reported natural disasters increased markedly between the 1980s and mid-2000s, up from fewer than 400 events to more than 1000. Total costs too saw considerable increases since the 1980s, with the period between 2010 and 2012 seeing around $650 billion in damages. The most recent period has seen almost 900 natural disaster events, generating around $300 billion in economic damages.

As part of the research, the authors identify in how far countries are currently at risk from the effects of a natural disaster. The countries are then ranked in the WorldRiskIndex, which is made up for five dimensions and a total of 28 sub-indices. The dimensions include Exposure, in how far a population is likely to be affected by one of the five natural disaster categories; Susceptibility to events, in so far as people come to harm; Coping, the ability of a populace to cope with natural disasters as well as the effects of climate change; and Adaption, in so far as a population is able to adapt themselves to future natural disaster events, including the mitigation of events as a result of changes to the local climate. Each dimension is weighted differently, with the overall score determining the severity and intensity of natural disasters, were they to strike.

Top 20 worst performers

Top 20 best performers

Qatar is the world’s top ranking country on the index, being the country least likely to be affected by a natural disaster (heatwaves are not considered within the report), and with relatively strong performances in all four dimensions regarding resilience to a natural disaster. Malta takes the number two spot, although the country has a relative weak coping capacity compared to Qatar. Saudi Arabia, which is also unlikely to be affected by a natural disaster, has a relatively strong performance in susceptibility. Barbados takes the number four spot – the country has its weakest performance in adaptive capacities.

European countries, such as Iceland (#6), Sweden (#9), Norway (#10) and Finland (#11) are strong performances in all categories, while the susceptibility for the latter three is considerably higher than the top performers on the list. Egypt performs relatively well, predominantly due to its low exposure. The UK comes in at #40, with a relatively high exposure level offset by strengths in all social dimensions.

Top 20 most resilient

Top 20 worst performers

The highest scoring countries include Vanuatu, Tonga, the Philippines Guatemala and Bangladesh. These countries are all highly exposed, with all countries faring relatively poorly in the social dimensions that offset the effects of a natural disaster in the region. The countries all lack a means of coping, with few countries able to adapt to the dangers posed by natural disasters today, or in the future. The people in the countries remain vulnerable. While most of the bottom 20 are developing countries, often with sub-par infrastructure, Japan finds itself among the bottom rung. The country, while performing well in the social dimensions to deal with natural disasters today, and in the future, is affected by a high exposure level – resulting in a high ranking on the list.