--> Gill Blog: Living with Risk Globally or In Our Own Backyard

Gill Blog

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Living with Risk Globally or In Our Own Backyard

Shortly before retiring for the evening the other night, I, like countless others checked the forecast for the next couple of days - we've had a particularly dreary and wet summer, and I was looking to see if any relief was in sight.  The forecast called for rain and cool temperatures.  When I awoke, I was reminded just how vulnerable we can be.
Peterborough, Ontario is a picturesque hamlet of 70,000 located about an hour east of my home in Toronto.  It is nestled in a basin surrounded by hills, and has two rivers that wind there way through the community.  It is also home to Trent University, whose campus sits on the banks of one of those rivers.  As it turned out, the same weather system I had quickly checked before going to bed was the same one responsible for shattering Peterborough's tranquility.  The local geography, combined with a 24-hour deluge of more than 150 mm of rain, clogged sewers and made several tributaries swell.  The resulting flood has created enough damage that local authorities have declared a State of Emergency (see a video report of the flood here in either Quicktime or RealVideo). 
How should we analyze events such as those that occurred in Peterborough this week?  Should they be viewed from the standpoint of a one-off freakish event that occurs once every hundred years, or should we instead view it in the context of something much larger?  I tend toward the latter.  In fact, over the past year I have been of the opinion that the number of catastrophic events causing human and economic hardship seems to have risen (a fact confirmed by The Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR) - a great source of information tracking events, and forwarding substantive risk mitigation strategies).  Well this past week, this fact was confirmed even further when the United Nations launched its 2004 version of "Living with Risk:  A global review of disaster reduction initiatives?.  The report confirms that these incidents are on the rise, as is their economic impact:
In 2003 alone, over 70,000 people perished in some 700 disasters that affected 600 million men, women and children and caused $65 billion in damages.  Global trends show that disasters will increase because of human activities and more people -- in particular the poor -- will be affected as they grow more vulnerable.  Over three quarters of the 100 largest cities in the world are situated in locations exposed to potential serious natural hazards.
The report is telling, as it states that these incidents cause a greater loss of life in underdeveloped countries (e.g. the earthquakes that occurred in California and Iran within days of each other last year were of the same magnitude, resulting in a catastrophic loss of life in one, and just a few casualties in the other), but causes a much greater economic impact in developed countries.  The report emphasizes that these losses can be reduced if more attention is paid to creating solid risk mitigation strategies.  Click here for more details on the report.


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