Burma 'exceptional' in Global Climate Risk Index

Dec 9, 2009 (DVB), Nearly a quarter of the world's population that died as a result of extreme weather conditions between 1990 and 2008 were victims of Burma's cyclone Nargis, which hit the country last May.

The alarming statistics were published in a report released yesterday to coincide with the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen, which is being billed as the last chance saloon for tempering the global impacts of climate change.

According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2010, published by the Bonn-based Germanwatch, Burma ranked just below Bangladesh as the country worst affected by extreme weather events in that time period.

The index, calculated on the basis of average of deaths each year, ranked Honduras, Vietnam and Nicaragua at fourth, fifth and sixth respectively.

Around 138,000 people were killed by the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone. Both the 1998 and 1999 floods in Bangladesh added several thousand to that toll, the former at one point inundating 66 percent of the country's total land area.

Until cyclone Nargis struck last year, however, Burma had been comparatively unscathed by natural disasters. While Bangladesh suffered from 244 extreme weather disasters between 1990 and 2008, only 22 occurred in Burma; the least individual disasters of the top ten countries in the index. Less than 100 people in Burma died as a direct result of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Estimations of the number of Nargis deaths are between 138,000 and 146,000 , more than half of the total killed across 11 countries following the 2004 tsunami – while around 2.4 million were left homeless. According to the report, 600,000 people died worldwide from extreme weather events in the 18-year period.

Moreover, the death toll from Nargis alone accounts for 95 percent of total deaths from natural disasters in Burma between 1990 and 2008, pushing the report's authors to label it an "exceptional" case.

It is the second deadliest North Indian cyclone in recorded history, after the 1970 Bhola cyclone, which killed between 300,000 and 500,000 in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

The report said that the huge number of Nargis fatalities "revealed the low adaptive capacity of the country which, however, is also a result of the political failure to embark upon serious disaster preparedness".

Before it bowed to international condemnation, the Burmese government refused offers of foreign aid in wake of the cyclone. Furthermore, the ban on journalists entering the most affected parts of the delta area meant the cyclone received only a fraction of the global media coverage of the 2004 tsunami.

"Weather extremes are an increasing threat for lives and economic values across the world, and their impacts will likely grow larger in the future due to climate change," the report added. "Our analyses show that in particular poor countries are severely affected."

Among the index's top 20 most at risk are only four developed countries; the 70,000 people killed across Europe in the 2003 heat wave largely account for this.

With one of the key fissures of current climate change debates centering on whether developing countries should compensate for the high emission rates of rich nations, the report urges readers "to acknowledge that affected developing countries are also least responsible for causing climate change".

Reporting by Francis Wade

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