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Sunday, 4 February, 2001, 12:25 GMT
UN's early warnings of climate disasters
Indian earthquake aftermath AFP
Identifying earthquake-prone areas could save many lives
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Scientists working for the United Nations are developing an early warning system for areas threatened by climate-related natural disasters.

The scientists are trying to identify areas where deforestation, coral reef destruction or other sorts of environmental damage are making communities more vulnerable.

They have begun producing maps of the Earth which show where people are at risk of disaster. The first maps, for Central America, have been completed.

The most recent disaster to strike the area was the El Salvador earthquake. Other risks the project will identify include floods, forest fires and mudslides.

The scientists work for the UN Environment Programme (Unep), whose governing council is meeting in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, from 5 to 9 February.

Vulnerable zones

Daniel Claasen, one of the Unep team, said they hoped to devise "a vulnerability index" which would warn governments how disaster-prone different areas were.

Cyclist in flood AP
Floods are likely to be more frequent
"A place ranking high on the index might be a mountainside or hilly area where there had been a high rate of deforestation, making the soil prone to erosion," he said.

"Such a site might be especially vulnerable to mudslides and landslips as a result of the kinds of torrential rains triggered by an El Nino."

The El Nino weather phenomenon occurs every few years, when a huge mass of warm water builds up in the western Pacific and moves eastwards to the normally colder waters off the coast of South America.

When it happens, El Nino can have severe and often very damaging effects on rainfall and weather in many parts of the world.

Mr Claasen said: "Other areas might be coastal zones where the clearing of mangrove swamps and the destruction of reefs had made people living there at greater risk from floods and storm surges."

Huge cost

The announcement of the vulnerability index comes as members of Unep's financial services initiative report on the possible cost of climate change.

All of them working in the insurance industry, they have sought to estimate the losses from more frequent storms, rising sea levels, and damage to fishing stocks, farming and water supplies.

Greek firefighter AP
Forest fires are a growing risk
They assume that concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere will rise to twice their pre-industrial levels by 2050. CO2 levels have risen by more than 30% in the last two centuries, from about 280 parts per million to 370 ppm today.

If they double in the next 50 years, Unep says, the annual global cost in climate-linked disasters could be more than $300bn. Some low-lying states like the Maldives could find the cost of climate change was more than 10% of their gross domestic product.

The head of the geoscience research group at Munich Re, the world's biggest reinsurance company, is Dr Gerhard Berz. He told Unep: "Climatic changes could trigger worldwide losses totalling many hundreds of billions of dollars per year.

"The insurance industry can effectively protect itself against the consequences of climate change.

Limiting liability

"If cover for certain hazards or risk zones were excluded - or narrowly limited - public authorities would inevitably come under growing pressure to take regulatory measures to lessen the risk or to combat the causes."

Munich Re is also concerned at what it says is the tendency for "mega-cities" - those with 10 million people or more - to develop their own weather patterns, marked by more frequent thunderstorms and torrential rain.

The director of Unep, Dr Klaus Toepfer, said: "We must all work to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

"But mitigation is not enough. We must help vulnerable areas of the world, primarily in the developing countries, to adapt to the consequences of global warming."

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See also:

26 Jan 01 | World
Deadly history of earthquakes
31 Jan 01 | Sci/Tech
Early warning for volcanic mudslides
01 Feb 01 | Africa
Mozambique flood damage spreads
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