Understanding the tsunami

The co-dependence of mortality risk and poverty

The Indian Ocean tsunami, the Katrina hurricane catastrophe and the Pakistan earthquake in late 2005 bear disquieting similarities in their consequences on human populations. The tsunami took 300,000 lives with more than 100,000 still missing. Although many of the missing may well be displaced rather than casualties, the death toll will likely remain in excess of 300,000. Early images from the catastrophe would have lead one to believe that tourist were preferentially impacted, but the world soon learned that this was due to the fact that tourists were the only ones with video equipment at the ready. In fact, the great majority of those who perished were relatively poor people; many of them subsistence level fishermen, and met their fate away from the cameras lens. These people contributed little to the formal economy and because of this the economic impact of the tsunami is unclear. Insured property losses were small not because little property was lost but because so little was insured.

As a result, the tsunami disaster underscores the well-supported observation that people in the lower rungs of society around the world are at far greater mortality risk from natural disasters than those who are better off. The Magnitude 7.6 October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, for example, took the lives of more than 30,000 people while the Northridge earthquake in California took less than 100 lives. Countries that fall lowest on measures such as the Human Development Index, such as the poorest countries in Africa, are known to suffer much greater losses than richer countries. This is likely due in part to the prevalence of structures and inadequate emergency response institutions, but the vulnerability of the poor is also amplified by where they live, which is often in regions prone to flooding and landslides or in regions susceptible to climate extremes.

Presenter: John Mutter, Deputy Director, The Earth Institute at Columbia University
Track: Mathematics and Statistics
Date: Sunday, February 19, 2006
Time: 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 noon


The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of the Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines--earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences--and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, The Earth Institute mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor. For more information, visit www.earth.columbia.edu.

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