EM-DAT:  The International Disaster Database

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From Watts Up With That?

Brief Note by Kip Hansen — 2 August 2023

There have been quite a few media and blog-based articles talking about disasters. (See Pielke Jr. here and here)  Are they increasing worldwide or are they declining?  Are there more or fewer weather-related, climate-related disasters?

The go-to source for statistics on worldwide disasters for (nearly) everyone is EM-DAT – The International Disaster Database.  For years, the UN, IPCC and the climate-crisis-complicit mass media used the database just as presented at Our World in Data:

This version led to the wild claims that disasters had quadrupled or quintupled since the 1970s.  There was a problem with that view, of course – it was not true in the real world, only in the pretty-picture graph.  In 2019, I investigated this and an email exchange with Regina Below, Database Manager and Documentalist at CRED/EM-DAT, revealed:

I asked:  “My guess would be that 1970 to 1998 represents an increase in REPORTING and not in actual Natural Disasters. Can you confirm this please — or correct me if I am wrong.“

Regina Below replied: “ You are right, it is an increase in the reporting”

It turns out that the data collection system was not fully functional until about 2000 and comparisons of years and totals before that time are not appropriate.  Later, others confirmed this in scientific journal articles (though they only needed to ask).

But what about the data after 2000?  Well, what do you think of when you see the word “disaster”? 

Here is EM-DAT’s definition:

EM-DAT defines disasters as situations or events which overwhelm local capacity, necessitating a request for external assistance at the national or international level. Disasters are unforeseen and often sudden events that cause significant damage, destruction, and human suffering.

And that seems alright, I would agree with that but for this:

Inclusion criteria

EM-DAT focuses on major disasters

EM-DAT globally records at the country level human and economic losses for disasters with at least one of the following criteria:

  • 10 fatalities;
  • 100 affected people;
  • a declaration of state of emergency;
  • a call for international assistance.”

It only takes one of those conditions to make it into the disaster database.  

One thing to notice is that the overall shape of this bar graph of the number of reported disasters is mostly affected by floods (light blue at the bottom of each year’s bar) which make up about ½ of the total number of disasters each year.

For example, I might not consider it a major disaster that a slum in the Dominican Republic is flooded by normal tropical rains (because it sits on a repeatedly-flooded flood plain where the land is unusable thus free) – even though more than a hundred people were affected (which, in current use, means twenty houses.).  It is something that happens almost every year.  In many years, it happens multiple times in multiple places. In the DR, a flood affecting twenty houses is hardly remarkable, barely making the local press.  It is certainly a disaster for the residents but for inclusion in an international disaster database?

EM-DAT reports come from international organizations, UN agencies, national and state-level governments, and Agence France-Presse (AFP).

The definitions used can be found at EM-DAT’s  “About” page.  Several of the criteria  can generously be described as ambiguous:  “The ambiguity in the definitions and the different criteria and methods of estimation produce vastly different numbers, which are rarely comparable.”

Consider “Extreme temperature”   using the criteria “100 affected people”.  Looks like this in the “number of disasters” view:

The ambiguity of “Extreme temperature” and “100 affected people” – how many heat waves affected more than 100 people?   AFP reports “hundreds of people sweating under heat wave, eleven deaths suspected to be heat-related” and there could be a new entry in the disaster database.  Agence France-Presse (AFP) is a partner in the climate propaganda cabal called Covering Climate Now dedicated to spreading climate crisis alarm through making  “Every story…a climate story”.

Even with the ambiguity of definitions used in the EM-DAT criteria and the possible inflation of disaster numbers by media advocacy, total number of disasters are still down-trending since the first year with usable date, 2000 (graph above).

Deaths resulting from natural disasters:

Note that Deaths are often not fully reported for months and even years after a major event, thus the EM-DAT data on deaths lags by a year or so. Data before 2000 is unreliable for exact numbers, especially for smaller disasters, but for major events killing thousands, can be considered comparable for magnitude.

Bottom Lines:

1.  Worldwide, the number of disasters is decreasing in the 21st Century. 

2.  Worldwide, the number of deaths resulting from natural disasters, both All Disasters and Climate/Weather related disasters is decreasing in the 21st Century.

3.  These two facts are well-known, verifiable and readily available to the public and, obviously, to journalists and media.

4.  When any media outlet, international organization or political figure  claims disasters and disaster related deaths are increasing, they are lying – either just mindlessly repeating climate alarm talking points or lying intentionally and with malice.

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Author’s Comment:

I do not like to accuse others of lying.  I prefer to think that they have been misled or misinformed.  However, this point is so obvious, so widely known, that those repeatedly claiming the opposite of the truth just have to be called out.  This is not some obscure scientifically technical point that requires expertise and digging out of minor specialized journals. 

Please, in your personal conversations, do not let this pass just to be polite.  Point out that disasters are decreasing and deaths are declining. 

And, finally, I have covered the EM-DAT data here for several years:  hereherehere, and here.  Like all data sources, EM-DAT must be closely examined at a very detailed level to ensure it is appropriate for one’s specific use. 

Thanks for reading.