According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, in 2016, 445 million people were adversely affected by natural disasters around the world. In Latin America alone, in October 2016, Hurricane Matthew caused more than 600 deaths and left more than $2.7 trillion in economic losses. A little further south, news about the impact of the rains has not stopped since December 2016. In Peru and Ecuador, the El Niño Costero phenomenon, which brought unusually high amounts of rain, has left behind more than 120 people dead, 141,000 people homeless and almost one million people affected. Similarly, in Colombia, earlier this year, a landslide caused by heavy rains claimed the lives of almost 300 people in the town of Mocoa.
Although these disasters are commonly categorised as 'natural', experts say that human intervention has magnified their impact and devastation. For example, in Mocoa, in 2015, 90 square kilometres of forest were destroyed and converted into land for agricultural production. When the trees disappear, the natural mechanism to retain and slow rainwater also disappears, which makes the land more prone to landslides.
Deforestation is not the only human-induced phenomena that is closely related to the impact of natural disasters on a locality. Here are some others:
- Land erosion
- Environmental degradation
- Climate change
- Poverty that forces vulnerable populations to build their homes in risk areas
- Poor urban planning and a limited capacity for prevention and response by governments
This helps to explain why, in the same year, an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter Scale claimed the lives of more than 316,000 people in Haiti, while an earthquake of 8.3 magnitude caused 450 fatalities in Chile. The huge difference between the number of casualties in the two countries is not as a result of the earthquake’s magnitude — after all, the earthquake in Chile was actually stronger — it is because of the vulnerable living conditions of the Haitian population.
Unfortunately, it is predicted that because of global warming the number and intensity of natural disasters is only going to worsen. As a consequence, a wide range of scientists, environmental activists and international organisations warn that in future the number of refugees will increase significantly due to climate change. Rising sea levels will leave millions of communities around the world without land to live on and rob them of livelihoods. In Bangladesh, for example, where most of the land lies less than 20 feet above the sea level, more than a quarter of the country could be underwater by the end of the century.
Faced with this real and urgent reality, we must ask ourselves if there is something we, as a community of followers of Jesus, can do.