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Extreme Weather Forces 26 Million People Into Poverty Each Year

Natural disasters will widen the divide between the poor and everyone else, according to a new World Bank study.

by Sarah Emerson
Nov 16 2016, 11:00am

Satellite image of Hurricane Katrina. Image: NOAA

At the 22nd session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 22), this month's global climate change conference in Marrakech, thousands of attendees have gathered to discuss the future of climate relations, with the added onus of eventually discussing the ramifications of president-elect Donald Trump.

Also on the minds of United Nations members is a new World Bank report on poverty and natural disasters, which was presented to delegates at COP 22 this Monday.

In a study of 117 countries, researchers with the World Bank revealed how natural disasters, many of which are worsened by the effects of climate change, are disproportionately harming poor people, which they defined as those living on less than $1.90 per day. The World Bank criticized traditional methods for estimating the impact of natural disasters which, according to the institution, focus exclusively on the losses of people who have assets to lose in the first place.

"Severe climate shocks threaten to roll back decades of progress against poverty," Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank Group, said in a statement. "Storms, floods, and droughts have dire human and economic consequences, with poor people often paying the heaviest price. Building resilience to disasters not only makes economic sense, it is a moral imperative."

According to the report, Unbreakable: Building the Resilience of the Poor in the Face of Natural Disasters, extreme weather forces nearly 26 million individuals into poverty each year, which is 60 percent higher than all other estimates. The World Bank estimates that 10.7 percent of the global population was at or below poverty levels, as of 2013.

While the economic costs of natural disasters totaled $92 billion in 2015, with average annual losses reaching $300 billion per year, the impact to people's well-being is unable to be measured evenly across the socioeconomic spectrum. As the study emphasized, a $1 loss means different things to a middle-class American versus someone living in rural poverty.

As such, an equal loss will be more devastating to poor and marginalized people with fewer assets, mostly because they're unlikely to have savings, will suffer more from blows to health and education infrastructure, and will simply need more time to recover and rebuild their lives.

In Zimbabwe and Panama, for example, where drainage infrastructure is less advanced, poor people are overexposed to flooding by more than 50 percent. When Hurricane Stan ravaged Guatemala in 2005, the probability of child labor rose by 7 percent in the country's worst-hit areas. Even today, four decades after Peru's Ancash earthquake, children of women who survived the disaster are affected by its toppling of infrastructure and impairments to educational attainment opportunities.

Policies that could help to increase resiliency against the aftermath of tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, and windstorms—such as expanding healthcare, building social and financial safety nets, and universal access to early warning systems—would equate to a $100 billion increase in annual global consumption.

"Countries are enduring a growing number of unexpected shocks as a result of climate change," Stephane Hallegatte, an economist who led preparation of the report, said in a statement.

"Poor people need social and financial protection from disasters that cannot be avoided. With risk policies in place that we know to be effective, we have the opportunity to prevent millions of people from falling into poverty."

The COP 22 conference, which began last week, will be the first convention of United Nations delegates since the Paris Agreement came into legal force on November 4. Even before the event began, the looming presidency of Trump cast a wide shadow over COP 22's agenda. Attending world leaders and climate scientists hope to build momentum for the monumental climate treaty that's in its early days, and still needs to be ratified by more than 80 countries.