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Thursday, June 24, 1999 Published at 09:08 GMT 10:08 UK


The misery of 98

Environmental refugees are on the increase

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

Natural disasters in 1998 were responsible for creating more refugees than wars or other armed conflicts, says the 1999 World Disasters Report.

[ image:  ]
The year's crop of disasters, including Hurricane Mitch, the El Nino climate switch in the Pacific and the associated La Nina, were the worst ever known.

The report is published by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

And the federation's president, Dr Astrid Heiberg, warns of the possibility that two growing trends may combine to create future disasters on an unprecedented scale.

Nature worsens poverty

The BBC's Margaret Gilmore: "Man is in part to blame"
"Everyone is aware of the environmental problems of global warming and deforestation on the one hand, and the social problems of increasing poverty and growing shanty towns on the other.

"But when these two factors collide, you have a new scale of catastrophe."

Dr Heiberg says the number of people needing help from the federation's member societies because of floods and earthquakes had grown in six years from under 500,000 to more than 5.5 million.

David Chazan reports from flood-threatened Bangladesh
The report says that falling soil fertility, drought, flooding and deforestation drove 25 million people from their homes last year. Many of these environmental refugees joined already fragile urban squatter communities.

Problems mount

It says analysis of the consequences of hurricanes and other climatic changes shows a trend towards "super-disasters" triggered by the weather.

[ image: Hurricane Mitch visits Managua]
Hurricane Mitch visits Managua
When El Nino struck Indonesia, for example, the result was not only the worst drought for 50 years, but a whole chain reaction of crises.

The rice crop failed, the price of imported rice quadrupled, the value of the currency fell by 80%, and there were food riots in the capital, Jakarta.

Outside the cities, vast forest fires filled the region's skies with smoke. The report says El Nino caused fires, droughts and floods which killed 21,000 people.

Tuberculosis rates

In China, 180 million people were affected by floods caused in part by deforestation in the Yangtze basin. And bitter winter weather in Russia struck a society with 44 million people living in poverty.

David Peppiat works on preparations for natural disasters for the Red Cross
Tuberculosis rates have now risen sharply, and a million children are homeless. The federation's director of disaster policy, Peter Walker, says: "The knee-jerk reaction to disaster response is not working.

"We have to structure and fund our emergency service internationally, the same way we do domestically. We don't wait until a house catches fire, then raise money for the fire department."

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