TSG IntelBrief: The Natural Disaster Threat
April 18, 2016

The Natural Disaster Threat


Bottom Line Up Front: 

• Last week’s devastating earthquakes in Ecuador and Japan demonstrated that while terrorism is a serious global threat, natural disasters represent a threat of an altogether different scale

• In terms of lives lost and economies battered, droughts, earthquakes, and floods stress and destabilize millions of people every year

• The cost of global terrorism in 2014 was estimated at nearly $53 billion; the cost of natural disasters in 2013 was estimated at $119 billion

• While very different types of threats, terrorism and natural disasters both generate instability; responses that stress cooperation, mitigation, and resilience are the most effective.


A terrorist attack generates spectacular reactions in part because of the suddenness of the damage—photographs of a target taken mere minutes apart show normalcy and then chaos, life and then death. Last week’s earthquakes in Ecuador and Japan, which killed at least 233 and 41 respectively, have the same ability to immediately and violently shake a society, with significant and lasting repercussions. Meanwhile, droughts such as the one devastating southern Africa are even more damaging and destabilizing. While terrorism is indeed a global threat, the threat is not manifested uniformly across the globe. Natural disasters are far more widespread, costly, and destabilizing.

In 2014, 67 countries experienced at least one death from an act of terrorism, though the large majority occurred in just five countries—AfghanistanIraqNigeriaPakistan, and Syria. Worldwide, an estimated 32,658 people were killed in terrorist attacks in 2014, according to the Global Terrorism Index. In that same year, the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters counted 324 natural disasters that killed 7,823 people worldwide. Yet 2014 was an exceptional year both in the massive increase of deaths from terrorism and an equally massive decrease in deaths from natural disasters. The 2014 fatalities from disasters noticeably decreased from the previous ten-year average of 99,820. Several different metrics help put the two threats into perspective.

In one of the most deadly years for global terrorism, the Institute for Economics and Peace in Australia estimated that the global costs of terrorism in 2014 were $52.9 billion—a large sum by any measure. Despite being one of the least deadly years for natural disasters, the global cost of natural disasters in 2014 was still a staggering $99 billion; the previous ten-year average cost was $162 billion. Natural disasters occur with such regularity and have such lasting impact that they are often not even accounted for on threat matrices and risk assessments.

The scale of the slow-motion disaster currently unfolding in southern Africa exceeds any threat posed by terrorism. South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Mozambique are experiencing one of the worst recorded droughts the region has ever endured. The World Food Programme estimates that as many as 49 million people will be negatively impacted by the persistent drought in the most fertile grain-producing area of the continent. Already, 14 million people are at risk of hunger. The long-term destabilizing impacts of drought can be seen in Somalia and Ethiopia, both of which have battled drought and war in cyclical fashion for decades. Evidence suggests that persistent drought may be the most deadly long-term global threat, unmatched in terms of lives impacted and societies and economies derailed.

In Saudi Arabia and Yemen—places accustomed to, but still suffering from, a persistent lack of rain—recent weeks have seen flooding that has killed dozens in both countries. Flooding is the last thing that Yemen needs—on top of a civil war, a Saudi-led and Western-supported bombing campaign, a battered economy, and a dropping water table. Yet several times in the last year the country has been devastated by massive floods.

While the threat of terrorism has prompted countries around the world to increase counterterrorism spending and programs, significant increases in investment are needed for programs to mitigate the damage from natural disasters—which countries across the world are far more likely to experience. Particular emphasis must be placed on resilience in terms of first response, medical, and reconstruction efforts. Unfortunately, the places most likely to experience destabilizing and destructive natural disasters are the places least likely to be able to afford such programs, ensuring a feedback loop of misery and international half-measures.


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