A 6.8-magnitude earthquake rocked Burma on Thursday. Meanwhile, Japan is still struggling to limit the damage inflicted by its March 11 earthquake and tsunami. In 2005, the Explainer named Storrs, Conn., the U.S. city safest from natural disaster. But which countries are least vulnerable to natural disaster?
Probably Estonia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Andorra. EM-DAT, a catalog of more than 11,000 major natural disasters, has no record of fatal floods, droughts, earthquakes, or severe storms in any of these countries from 1900 to 2009. (Nor could the Explainer find news reports of such incidents after 2009). Run by Belgium’s Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disaster, EM-DAT is the gold standard for these statistics. But a word of caution for those interested only in so-called acts of God: The “natural disasters” category also includes catastrophes that generally involve some human blame, such as famine, cholera, and wildfires.
The records are also incomplete, particularly for years prior to EM-DAT’s establishment in 1988. The database lists no fatal natural disasters in Singapore, despite floods in 1978 that killed seven people. (Ten UAE sailors went missing after Cyclone Gonu hit in 2007; it’s unclear whether they were intentionally or mistakenly omitted from EM-DAT.) It’s possible that Qatar and other countries spared in the record books haven’t been as lucky as they seem.
Mortality figures aren’t necessarily the most telling indicator of a country’s vulnerability to natural disaster, but they’re the most accurate type of record available. They also provide a convenient way of comparing apples with oranges—the relative damage inflicted by cyclones versus earthquakes, etc.—in a way that simply counting the number of incidents can’t. But mortality data do skew the results slightly, since wealthier, more sparsely populated countries will sustain fewer fatalities.
Most researchers who study disaster risk focus on the most vulnerable, rather than least vulnerable, areas and for obvious reasons—this is where development and relief organizations want to spend the most time and resources preventing deaths from future disasters. There’s a healthy disagreement about exactly which countries are the most vulnerable, but Ethiopia and Bangladesh typically rank toward the top.
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