Thursday, 14 January 2010

Why do people die?

In June 2009, the UN published a Mortality Risk Index, listing the populations most at risk of death following earthquake, flood, tropical cyclone or landslide.

The list does not relate to the risk of one of these natural disasters occurring in a country, but to the likelihood that people will be killed. Some countries, such as Japan, suffer these things frequently but, thanks to their defence strategies, the risk of death is considerably lessened.

Of the 222 countries listed, Haiti, scene of such devastation this week, was ranked 35th most likely to suffer high mortality after such a disaster.

The country that topped the UN risk list was Bangladesh. Low lying and coastal, Bangladesh is constantly at risk from cyclones and floods, and death tolls in the thousands are not uncommon.

Like Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, Bangladesh is rife with poverty. In a list compiled by the International Monetary Fund in 2008, it ranked as the 154th richest out of 181 countries. Haiti, with an average annual wage 36 times smaller than that of the USA, was 157th.

Poverty does seem to have a bearing on people’s chances of survival following natural disaster. In fact, of the top ten countries on the Mortality Risk Index, only one, China, was in the top fifty countries of the world when ranked by wealth.

This is hardly surprising. Poor countries cannot afford the defences needed to shield themselves from disaster. They also don’t have the infrastructure to cope with large scale casualties.

Japan, the 24th richest country in the world, is plagued by earthquakes. Though buildings shake, few fall. But such buildings are expensive, and countries such as Haiti, India and Bangladesh do not have the funds necessary to invest in them. Many homes in these countries are likely to be poorly constructed, without proper foundations, and often built in vulnerable locations such as on the sides of mountains, in coastal areas, even on giant rubbish tips. When disaster strikes, these dwellings collapse, and homes, possessions and lives are lost.

We cannot do much to prevent natural disasters occurring. We can however, attempt to minimise the suffering they cause. World In Need works in many at risk countries, including Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. We sponsor children, enabling them to go to school and learn skills that will benefit their entire community as well as themselves, and we help people set up business co-operatives, enabling them to earn a living wage. In Afghanistan, we support a group of widows who make high quality carpets, which we export to Britain and sell on their behalf. In Sierra Leone, we have a feeding programme, ensuring children are given a nutritious meal each day, making them stronger, healthier and more able to withstand whatever life throws at them.

There will always be earthquakes, cyclones and floods. There don’t always have to be deaths.

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