Feature: American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting

December 9-13, 2013 | San Francisco

Natural Disasters: The Upside

by | 12.6.2011 at 9:10pm | 1 Comment
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Aftermath of the 1995 Kobe, Japan earthquake (World Housing Encyclopedia)

Floods, volcanoes, earthquakes–really, very little good news comes out of this sort of thing. Maybe the occasional feel-good story about, say, a child miraculously dug from the rubble days later, tired but unharmed and in good spirits, having survived on a cache of crackers and Coke.

Actually, says John Mutter, an Earth Institute professor of sustainability studies, disasters can sometimes have good effects, depending on the type of disaster and a country’s economic position. Mutter presented the idea, and supporting data, at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union this week.

Natural disasters’ effects are often measured by changes in gross domestic product, but Mutter and his collaborators looked into wider factors, including life expectancy, education, and foreign aid and investment.

According to Mutter, droughts have basically no real upside–but countries are affected unevenly. Large parts of the United States, for example, suffered terrible drought this year–but on a national level, only 1% of gross income comes from farming, so the overall economy was barely dented. India, on the other hand, depends 30% on agriculture, so droughts can hit hard there. Earthquakes and floods, on the other hand, can have mixed effects. They destroy bridges, roads and buildings; but if a country has enough capital or can attract sufficient foreign funds to rebuild, the replacement infrastructure is almost invariably better and more resilient. Thus, some hardest-hit locales may come off better in the end, with paved roadways, modern hospitals and other facilities they would otherwise never have gotten. Floods also replenish aquifers and bring new soil, so crop yields often jump the following year. Again, India is a good example; with a rapidly developing economy, it does have capital to build better replacements–and in any case, as farming makes up a declining part of its base, it will probably become more insulated from the ups and downs of nature.

After the city of Kobe, Japan, was devastated by a 1995 earthquake, it is now probably better off than before, says Mutter: its port was totally rebuilt, and now handles shipping far more efficiently than the old one. And, in a perverse way, New Orleans benefited from Hurricane Katrina; many of the poorest people scattered and never came back, and obsolescent buildings from schools to hospitals have been replaced with much better facilities for the reduced–and generally richer–population.

That, of course, begs the question of what happened to the poor, wherever they landed. “Disasters tend to exacerbate inequality,” says Mutter. “The rich can cope, and they may actually benefit. The poor, though, can’t always wait for the benefits to arrive, and they get flushed out.”

What about the economic effects of one of the worst disasters of modern times–the Haiti earthquake of 2010, which leveled much of the nation’s capital? “Haiti’s economy was so bad to begin with, the quake really didn’t damage it,” says Mutter. “If I’m unconscious, you can’t knock me out.”

Mutter’s coauthors in the study are Sonali Deraniyagala and Svetla Marinova of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs; and Valentina Mara of the Earth Institute’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network.

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