Image: Mortality map
Earth Institute / Columbia University
A section of a global map shows areas of high mortality risk from natural disasters in Africa and southern Europe and Asia. Orange indicates drought risk; blue indicates risk from floods and storms; green indicates geophysical risks such as earthquakes, volcanoes and landslides; black areas face a combination of risks. Click on links in the story below to see full maps.
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updated 1/7/2005 1:52:53 PM ET 2005-01-07T18:52:53

The human impact of a natural catastrophe depends greatly on where it happens, disaster officials have long known. In a soon-to-be-published report, scientists have mapped out some of the worst places to live when Mother Nature shows the ugly side of her face.

The maps and analysis were prepared by the Earth Institute at Columbia University for the World Bank, which expects to publish them sometime this winter. The report is designed as a guide for how international investments should be made and a tool for battling calamity before it strikes.

The researchers compiled statistics from the last two decades on natural disasters in three categories: geophysical (earthquakes, volcanoes, and landslides), hydro (floods and hurricanes) and drought.

Based on these factors, they mapped out hot spots of risk.

"The notable feature of the maps is that there are small countries that get pummeled," the Earth Institute’s Arthur Lerner-Lam told LiveScience. Places like Honduras, Guatemala, and the Philippines are some of the riskiest.

Regional pluses and minuses
Part of this has to do with geography. Central America, for example, is an area of high tectonic activity, which results in many volcanoes and earthquakes. It is also in the path of tropical storms.

"If a geologist were to put a country somewhere, this might be one of the last places," Lerner-Lam said of Central America.

But there are many reasons why people choose to live in dangerous areas. "Lots of people farm on volcanic soil because it’s fertile," Lerner-Lam said in a telephone interview prior to the Asian disaster. And coastlines were, and continue to be, important centers for trade.

Beyond geography, however, developing countries have a harder time preparing for and recovering from disasters, as was evidenced by the lack of warning for December's tsunami in Asia and the agonizing days people waited for relief crews.

"Poorer people are hit disproportionately by hazards," Lerner-Lam said.

Part of the problem is that poorer nations get stuck in the "recovery trap." They spend so much of their resources rebuilding after the last disaster that they are not ready for the next one. This is not true in well-off countries such as Japan and Italy, which suffer a lot of economic damage in comparative terms, but which also have economies that "can absorb the brunt of these disasters," Lerner-Lam said.

Guidance for investments
The risks in the new report were calculated based on the number of deaths, the economic cost, and cost as a percentage of the economic output, or gross domestic product, of that location. The maps indicate hot spots, which are areas in the top 30 percent of risk for a given indicator.

The goal of the new maps is to help investors make smart choices for sustainable development. A good example is earthquake-prone Istanbul, Turkey, where the effort is to construct buildings that are less vulnerable.

By spending a little more money to make something earthquake-resistant, Lerner-Lam said, "we reduce the loss of life and get a better return on the building because it doesn’t fall down."

A little preventive medicine could impact the movement of money around the globe. World Bank data indicates that emergency loans and reallocation of existing loans for disaster reconstruction from 1980 to 2003 totaled $14.4 billion, with $12 billion going to disaster hotspot countries.

"This tells us that we need to work to reduce the vulnerability of these developing countries to natural disasters as part of any poverty reduction strategy," said the Earth Institute's Robert Chen.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

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