New Internationalist

The Facts

August 1991

new internationalist
issue 222 - August 1991


A chronology of the worst disasters of the last two decades, those with a death toll of 5,000 or higher. The list begins and ends with Bangladesh's two most terrible cyclones.1

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The number of disasters reported worldwide is multiplying with every decade.2

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While the trend is decidedly upward, the 1980s figures are inflated by the new openness of the Soviet Union and China in reporting disasters. While China reported only three disasters during the 1960s (the time of the Cultural Revolution) and nine in the 1970s, it reported 85 in the 1980s, including everything from boat accidents on the Yangtse River to the typhoon flooding that killed 2,000 people in 1989. Similarly the Soviets reported just one disaster in the 1960s and three in the 1970s, but 31 in the 1980s, including the earthquake in Armenia which killed 25,000 people in 1988.

Fewer people died in disasters during the 1980s than in the two preceding decades, largely because of the Biafran war of secession in Nigeria (1967) and the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia (1975-1 978), which each killed one million people.

Worldwide deaths in disasters, 1960-19892
1960s 1,344,404
1970s 2,426,948
1980s 1,165,002


Biafra and Cambodia were extreme examples but civil strife was also the main killer in the 1980s, with drought-related famine close behind. The other types of disaster cause far fewer deaths.

Biggest killers by disaster type, 1980-19891
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Number of people killed per disaster event, rich and poor worlds, 1960-1981.3

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Each disaster causes many more deaths in poor countries than in rich ones. Wealthy countries will never suffer from famine, for example, and are much less likely to face civil war. But also low-income economies contain many more peo- ple living in the poverty and marginal conditions that make them vulnerable.

[image, unknown] Poor countries are much more prone to disasters than rich ones. India suffered most disasters in the 1980s (99), followed by China (82), Indonesia (73), Bangladesh (61) and the Philippines (56). As this list implies, Asia is the region by far the most afflicted by natural disasters.2

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1 Extracted from Disaster History - Significant data on major disasters worldwide. Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance. Washington 1990
2 Calculated from the country tables of the Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance. They therefore do not include any disasters within the US
3 Prevention Better Than Cure. Swedish Red Cross 1984

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