World Risk Report 2012, United Nations University

The 2012 WorldRiskReport from United Nations University, similar to the 2011 World Risk Index before it, provides detailed analyses and information about disaster risk for countries throughout the world, based on countries’ exposure to hazards and vulnerability.  A definitive example of this would be the 2011 6.3 mag earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand that led to the loss of 187 lives, while the 2010 Haiti 7.0 mag earthquake in comparison led to a death toll of 220,000.  The financial loss of both earthquakes was 16 billion USD and 8 billion USD respectively.  If you look at the rankings of both countries in the report (Haiti ranked at 21 (high risk) and New Zealand at 122) you begin to understand why.

Haiti has a vulnerability rating of 73.54 percent and an exposure rating of 16.26 percent while New Zealand with a similar exposure rating of 15.44 percent, but with far more infrastructure in place for dealing with earthquake hazards has a vulnerability rating of 28.77 percent.  New Zealand’s lack of capacity to adapt (30.39 percent) is also much lower than that of Haiti, which is 67.48 percent.  The lesson here is that while large-scale hazards cannot be prevented, losses can be reduced with adequate preparation and adaptive measures, however, this also takes time to implement and financial resources often unavailable in poorer countries.

A quick note about methods used.  The report relates exposure to ‘the annual average number of individuals who are potentially exposed to hazard events’.  The rating is then calculated using the Physical Exposure data of the PREVIEW-Global Risk Data Platform from the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) (  The method for assessing vulnerability is illustrated by this graphic.


World Risk Report 2012, United Nations University

No method can provide a complete representation of a country’s vulnerability, exposure, ability to cope etc, but risk assessments do provide a useful guide for understanding different levels of risk and there is always room for improvement such as the inclusion of new data over time.

In comparison to the 2011 World Risk Index, the report focuses on the role of ecosystems in disaster risk.  It gives special attention to environmental degradation and disasters, which is of large importance to both developed and less developed countries especially when accounting for climate change and other large-scale environmental challenges such as ocean acidification that threatens coral reefs (see Tipping point for coral reefs?).  It notes that ecosystems can enhance people’s capacity to cope with disaster in that they provide food and water when needed, but also act as ‘natural buffers’ to hazards.

According to the report, environmental degradation ‘reduces adaptive capacity of societies to deal with disaster risk’.  For example, it finds that 200 million people defined as ‘at-risk’ may gain risk-reducing benefits from coral reefs alone.  Since 13 percent of the world’s population lives in coastal areas less than ten metres above sea level and reefs can reduce more than 85 percent of incoming wave energy that impacts coastlines, there is a clear need to preserve them where possible.  The problem is that many of the reefs humans depend on are being lost worldwide including 85 percent of oyster reefs, 30-50 percent of wetlands and approx 20 percent of coral reefs.  This is driven by a number of different factors such as destructive fishing, climate change, coastal development and pollution (see Reefs at Risk Revisited).

While countries most at risk to increased exposure to hazards caused by reef degradation are in Oceania, the reefs in this part of the world are doing the best globally, although if this were to change 28 percent of the overall population in this region could be vulnerable.  The conservation of reefs for reducing disaster risk is also of large importance to Caribbean nations and in Asia, which has  127 million people close to reefs who are living below 10 metres .

The WorldRiskReport makes a good argument in favour of conserving the natural environment along coastlines, especially in regions vulnerable to flooding, sea level rise, storms and landslides.  Since in many cases researchers are only beginning to understand how human-induced environmental degradation factors into disaster risk there is much work to be done in this area that needs attention from the biological, physical and social sciences.

References and Further Reading

World Risk Report 2012: Environmental degradation increases disaster risk worldwide. UN University

Reefs at Risk. World Resources Institute