Author: PreventionWeb editors

Seven myths about disasters debunked – separating the disaster facts from disastrous falsehoods

Source(s): United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction
Disaster myths
Adapted from art by Cindy Mc / flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED)

In times of disaster, myths and misinformation can spread like wildfire. To help you keep your head above the floodwaters of myth and misconception, the PreventionWeb editors have put together a life-raft of truths. So, next time you feel you are on shaky terrain in a conversation about risks and resilience, these explanations should put you on firmer ground.

1. 100-year floods only happen once in a century

A 100-year flood, like a 100-year storm, is one so severe it has only a 1% chance of hitting in any given year.

Unfortunately, many people believe that if they experienced a 100-year flood this year, they will not see another one like it for 99 years.

It just doesn’t work that way. In reality, the chance of being flooded next year, and the year after that, is the same as it was when the house flooded the first time – 1%.

One percent is the same as a 1-in-100 chance. Hence, the shorthand: 100-year flood.

Because of the confusion, many flood plain managers want to do away with the term “100-year flood,” but that creates another problem. People generally do not have a good sense of risk as expressed as a probability, especially when that probability appears small.

Get the low-down

2. Disasters cost on average 250 billion a year

Munich Re – the world’s largest reinsurer – released its global disaster loss calculation for 2023 as coming in at a total of US $250 billion.  This roughly equals the entire GDP of New Zealand or Portugal. It is also slightly lower than the previous estimate for 2022, which originally costed at US $270 billion. But don’t start celebrating yet!

Many of the impacts of disasters simply are not included in these estimates – such as those associated with slow-onset and small-scale events, and the knock-on effects of broken supply chains, losses in productivity, compromised physical and mental health, and the enduring impacts of disrupted education. All of these contribute to an invisible toll of disasters far greater than the insurers’ economic estimates.

Do the math! 

3. Disasters are natural, and we are powerless to stop them

By shrugging off a catastrophic event as a “natural disaster” one is refusing to take responsibility for the damage and destruction.

But we know it is possible to reduce the risk from hazards, man-made and natural. We can give early warning for some events, and put in place safety plans. We can identify the most at-risk people, and ensure that that they are given special protection. We can build homes and infrastructure so that it can withstand earthquakes and extreme weather, protecting the people for whom it is built. We can invest in resilience, and establish financial mechanisms to rebuild and prevent the disaster-poverty vicious cycle.

These are deliberate decisions – and failing to act on them is the real cause of disasters. There is nothing “natural” about it.

Stop calling disasters ‘natural’! 

4. We are powerless against earthquakes

Earthquakes usually give little warning, and can quickly devastate entire cities and regions. However, we can prepare – especially in places known be earthquake prone – and reinforcing new buildings or retrofitting existing structures can be extremely effective. 

The School Earthquake Safety Program (SESP) was initiated in 1997 to raise earthquake safety awareness in Nepal through outreach and capacity building amongst teachers, students, and parents, and to strengthen school buildings through seismic retrofitting. By the time of the earthquake, 300 schools had been retrofitted, 160 of them in the most affected districts. Of these 160 schools, 125 reported no damage in the earthquake, with 35 reporting only hairline cracks. Notably, none of the retrofitted schools collapsed or needed major repairs.

Similarly, in Türkiye, schools and colleges that were part of a scheme to earthquake-proof educational buildings saw only minimal damage during the 2023 earthquakes.

Reinforce your foundations

5. Response does not rhyme with anticipation

Humanitarian responses typically happen after a crisis has hit, but it doesn’t always have to be that way.

Anticipatory action allows humanitarians and affected communities to make informed decisions ahead of a humanitarian crisis – saving time and money; preventing displacement, disease, loss of livelihood; and preserving the dignity of those affected.

An anticipatory action plan comprises a set of pre-agreed and pre-financed actions to be implemented once forecasts have reached an agreed trigger threshold. The trigger could, for example, be a predicted windspeed of a certain magnitude for an approaching storm, or water flow of a certain volume upstream of a flood-prone region. This trigger releases the necessary funds to begin activities, with particular emphasis on reaching the most vulnerable: distribution of provisions or cash; evacuations; reinforcement of structures.

Anticipatory action is a smart way to respond to potential crises when it is possible to forecast a disaster.  Evidence shows that anticipatory action can be fast, economical, inclusive, dignified, and resilient – complementing traditional humanitarian responses.

Take early action! 

6. High-income countries suffer worse damages than lower-income countries

In 2023 the region that incurred the greatest economic losses was North America, accounting for 40% of global losses costing US $160 billion (US $ 100 billion of which was insured).  Wealthier nations usually incur the highest financial losses from disasters because they have more high-value assets – which are more likely to be insured – but poorer countries bear a disproportionate economic burden relative to their overall wealth.

However, while losses are greater in high-income countries in terms of absolute dollar values, the share of economic loss in low-income and lower-middle-income countries is much higher than the global average, with direct economic loss averaging 0.37% of global GDP of countries reporting via the Sendai Framework Monitor (2015-2022). Poorer countries also suffer the greatest losses in terms of lives lost and disrupted.

Count the costs

7. Whether it's 1.5 or 2 or 3 degrees of global warming, it doesn't make much difference

New research identifying climate vulnerability hotspots has found that the number of people affected by multiple climate change risks could double if the global temperature rises by 2°C in comparison to a rise of 1.5°C.

At 1.5°C of warming, in 2050 1.5 billion people – 16% of the world population – will have moderate-to-high levels of multisector risk. At 2°C of warming, this almost doubles to 29% of the global population – around 2.7 billion people. At 3°C of warming, that figure almost doubles again, to 50% of the population, or 4.6 billion people.

Check the temperature!      Some cool infographics  

Awareness of disaster risks is vital, so it is important to keep discussing and sharing information about hazards and how they can be mitigated.

But discussions around disasters – especially on social media – are often characterized by rumours, fear-mongering, one-sided perspectives, misguided solutions, unfounded predictions, false cures, dangerous mythology, decontextualized or recontextualized media clips, and perspectives that stigmatise certain social groups.

To ensure a balanced, truth-based perspective, the PreventionWeb Risk Media Hub provides sets of resources for journalists, researchers and those with inquiring minds. And our resources on understanding disaster risk will give you a strong foundation to continue debunking disaster myths! 

Visit the Risk Media Hub    Build your understanding of disaster risk

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