DisastersDisasters Around the World Are Linked by the Same Root Causes

By Ajit Niranjan

Published 8 September 2021

Climate catastrophes, pandemics, and other crises ultimately stem from the same root causes, says an expert. These have more in common than people realize or plan for.

A cold snap in Texas. A locust swarm in East Africa. A fish in China that survived the extinction of the dinosaurs but succumbed irreversibly to humans last year.

Though separated by borders and oceans, and affecting individual species or entire ecosystems and communities, disasters like these have more in common than people realize or plan for. This is a key finding of a report published Wednesday by the United Nations University (UNU). The scientists found some of the worst disasters over the past two years overlapped to make each other worse. In many cases, they were fueled by the same human actions.

When people see disasters in the news, they often seem far away,” said Zita Sebesvari, a senior scientist at UNU and a lead author of the report. “But even disasters that occur thousands of kilometers apart are often related to one another.”

Overlapping Crises
Three root causes affected most of the events in the UNU analysis: burning fossil fuels, poor management of risk and placing too little value on the environment in decision-making.

Many of the disasters recorded were linked to extreme weather. In Vietnam, a cascade of nine separate storms, heavy rains and floods wrought havoc across the country over the space of just two months. A deadly cyclone in Bangladesh, turbocharged by climate change, struck land while workers quarantined in cyclone shelters during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Events like these “feed into each other,” said Jack O’Connor, a senior scientist at UNU and a lead author of the report. If emergency shelters are being used to protect people from extreme weather and house coronavirus patients, fewer people can — or want to — use them. Those who do are more exposed to the virus. And then when the cyclone strikes, it damages hospitals and disrupts supply lines needed to treat patients.

You don’t design your cyclone response with a pandemic in mind,” said O’Connor. “But this is the kind of thing that we’re going to need to start doing.”

Increasingly Extreme Weather
The UNU report comes a week after the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) published an analysis showing that a weather-related disaster occurred every day on average over the past 50 years. Each day, the report found, disasters from hurricanes to droughts had killed 115 people and caused $202 million (€170 million) in losses.