The Scale of Disaster

Jen (who often comments here) asked me if I knew how the Boxing Day tsunami compares to other historical natural disasters in terms of the number of deaths.  Here’s the most comprehensive single list I was able to find, going as far back as an earthquake in 1201 AD.  Limiting it to the past 40 years or so, it looks like it falls third, behind only the 1970 cyclone that hit Bangladesh and the 1976 earthquake that hit China.  Wikipedia also has an entry on this, broken out by types of event.

For a different perspective, Nicholas Kristof points out in the New York Times that more people die every month of AIDS (240,000) and malaria (165,000) than died in the tsunami, and almost as many die of diarrhea (140,000).  But it’s hard to stay focused on unglamorous, persistent problems, and so kids die for lack of a few cents worth of oral rehydration salts, or bleach to purify their water.

I’d encourage everyone who is giving so generously to the victims of the tsunami to also consider giving unrestricted funds to an organization like CARE or Doctors without Borders to fight chronic disease and poverty. 

Moreover, a recent report from the UN Development Programme points out that most of the victims of "natural disasters" are also victims of poverty.  Poverty means that people live in places prone to flooding, earthquakes and mudslides, live in flimsier buildings, and so forth.  I’m not sure there’s any building code on earth that could have made much difference against the tsunami, but there’s a reason that similar size earthquakes kill tens of thousands of people in Iran, but only a few in California.

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