The Word : Act of God

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WHO do you blame when a giant wave knocks down your home? That’s what happened to this house in Banda Aceh, Sumatra, on 26 December 2004, and insurers would usually have gone straight to the top, pointing the finger of legal blame at God in order to excuse themselves from paying up. In fact, most insurers disregarded the “act of God” exclusion clause that is routinely built into travel insurance policies, at least, and honoured claims made by travellers caught up in the disaster. But acts of God make many natural-disaster experts uncomfortable.

Why? Because it implies helplessness. In insurance terms, an act of God is “a sudden and violent act of nature that could not have been foreseen or prevented”. But one group of experts from Columbia University in New York and the World Bank in Washington DC thinks that even if we can’t predict these events precisely, we can determine their likelihood. Earlier this year, the group produced a report, Natural Disaster Hotspots, which ranks the world’s riskiest places in terms of vulnerability to natural disasters.

The group produced its rankings by dividing the world into a grid and assessing the risk of any of six major natural hazards occurring in each cell: earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, floods, droughts and cyclones. The assessment combined a cell’s exposure to a particular hazard, such as its proximity to a major fault line, with the number of deaths caused by the hazard in the recent past. The risk was then expressed in terms of death rates and economic loss.

99.1 per cent of Taiwanese are at risk of dying from one hazard or another”

So where in the world should you avoid setting up home? According to the report, Taiwan is the hottest of hotspots, with a whopping 99.1 per cent of its population at risk of dying from one hazard or another. Taiwan also tops the league for economic risk.

The scale of a disaster is in part determined by the way in which humans have developed an area. People can compound the threat by, say, building on the slopes of an active volcano or erecting tower blocks in an earthquake zone. A good example is Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, which is built in a valley. Major earthquakes have destroyed the city three times in the last 400 years. Since the last one in 1967, the population has doubled to 5 million and is still growing at 3 per cent a year. But building codes that could protect the population are either lacking or not enforced. High-rise buildings and crowded apartment blocks cover the floor of the valley and tend to be concentrated in its deepest part, where shaking would probably be worst in an earthquake. Because of its position, the city is also vulnerable to heavy rain and mudslides.

So could better enforcement of building codes, among other things, reduce the impact of a disaster in Caracas? That’s it. As the experts point out, an earthquake or an eruption or a flood in an unpopulated area that causes no economic losses is not a disaster. To a large extent, the impact of an act of God is down to us.

© New Scientist, Reed Business Information

Emma Young, New Scientist

January 29th 2005

Magazine no2484

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