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Extreme natural disasters like floods, storms and earthquakes displaced nearly 20 million people in 2014, a new report by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has found.
Since 2008, an average of 26 million people have been forced to flee their homes every year, due to disasters brought on by natural hazards. That's equivalent to one person being displaced every second, the report said.
However, Mother Nature isn't the only factor to be blamed for the severity of the crisis. Often, the weather or earthquake isn't dangerous in and of itself, but when coupled with poor housing and or infrastructure in densely populated areas, can cause immense damage to life and property.
"A flood is not in itself a disaster, the catastrophic consequences happen when people are neither prepared nor protected when it hits," Jan Egeland, Secretary General of NRC, said in a statement. The NRC is an independent foundation focusing on protecting the rights of refugees and internally displaced people through aid distribution and advocacy.
People around the world are now sixty percent more likely to be displaced by a natural disaster than four decades ago. The reasons vary, but the authors said rapid urbanization and population growth in hazard-prone areas were the key drivers behind increased vulnerability
"The urban population in developing countries has increased by 326 percent since 1970," lead author Michelle Yonetani wrote in the report. "This rapid growth has for the most part been unplanned and poorly governed, leading to high exposure and vulnerability."
Yonetani and her co-authors compiled data from a wide range of sources, including governments, the United Nations, nonprofit organizations, and media reports.
Weather-related disasters, floods in particular, had the largest impact — displacing 17.5 million last year, while geophysical hazards such as earthquakes made 1.7 million people homeless.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will lead to higher global temperatures, raising the risk of more intense droughts and storms, including tropical cyclones with higher wind speeds, a wetter Asian monsoon, and, possibly, more violent mid-latitude storms.
The NRC report says 1998 was the peak year for displacement — a year that coincides with the strongest recorded El Niño — a warming of the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean.
El Niños formations are a natural phenomenon that usually occur every two to seven years and can drastically change weather patterns across the globe. El Niño conditions currently exist in the Pacific and many scientists project this year's could be one of the strongest ever. It has already been identified as a major contributing factor in the recent wildfires stretching from California to Alaska and the heavy rainfalls in California.
Kristie Ebi, a professor at University of Washington's global health department, studies the impacts climate change, including extreme events, and how nations might better prepare for them.
"There has been big shift over the last few years in disaster risk management and adaptation to climate change; they have been running along parallel tracks," Ebi told VICE News. "We are now looking at how climate change is affecting how many disasters there could be and how intense they could be."
The IPCC in its 2001 report had stated that global warming could cause sea levels to rise 0.11 to 0.77 meters (0.36 to 2.5 feet) by 2100. This alone can lead to massive flooding and can submerge entire coastal cities. Many coastal towns and cities have their hospitals and other disaster relief infrastructure situated near the coast, Ebi said. "In many Pacific islands, the hospitals are in coastal region… If you look at long term projections for sea levels rise and much larger storm surges, you need to move those structures."
The NRC concurs with Ebi that smart infrastructure investment is crucial. The authors found that in Chile, which had one of the largest displacements of 2014, owing to an 8.2 magnitude offshore earthquake, investing in disaster prevention and preparedness paid off brilliantly. Around 970,000 people had to flee low-lying coastal areas in response to a tsunami warning following the tremor, but most were able to return home the following day.
Asia is home to 60 per cent of the world's population, but accounted for 87 percent of the world's displaced people in 2014. China, India, and the Philippines experienced the highest levels of displacement in absolute terms, both in 2014 and for the period from 2008-2014.
At the same time, Europe experienced double its average level of displacement for the past seven years, with 190,000 people displaced, mostly due to the flooding in the Balkans.
The link between extreme weather events and climate change also has some unforeseen consequences. Daniel Chapman, a graduate student at University of Massachusetts Amherst's
Psychological and Brain Sciences Department, has found that linking the two when making appeals for humanitarian relief can make some people, particularly climate change skeptics, view a disaster event and its victims unfavorably.
"While it is true that there is increasing scientific research on the link between disaster trends and climatic changes, in the aftermath of any single disaster it is difficult, if not impossible, to make this connection reliably."
Therefore, he added, "if the purpose of a group's message is to increase humanitarian relief, connecting a disaster with climate change may not be a good option."
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