When Climate Disasters Strike, Developing Countries See Worse Human Impacts

May 3, 2024

A human development gap explains why some countries suffer far worse than others in the face of disaster

ARLINGTON, Va. (May 3, 2024) – The country where you live might determine your fate when disaster strikes, according to new Conservation International research released today. The study, published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, examines the number and location of people worldwide injured, rendered homeless, or killed when hit with climate-related disasters over a two-decade period (2000-2020).

Despite a similar average number of disasters across regions, the study reveals significant disparities in the toll exacted on human lives. Key findings include:

  • Central America, Caribbean, Eastern Africa including Madagascar, Southern and Eastern Asia had the highest levels of human impact from disasters;
  • Over the 20 years measured, Europeans impacted by disaster decreased while Africans impacted by disaster increased, despite both continents maintaining the same average number of events; and
  • Of 172 countries surveyed, 19 had populations where the culminative impact exceeded 100% of the population over the 20-year period, underscoring the repeated blows faced by some countries.

“The data has shown us that the real issue here is a lack of capacity and resources to help people adapt to climate change,” said Camila Donatti, the study’s lead author and the senior director of climate change adaptation at Conservation International. “Like so many other elements of climate change, communities who are the least responsible for global warming are often left to suffer the worst consequences of it. Climate disasters and their impacts are absolutely environmental justice issues.”

Highly developed nations are more likely to implement climate change adaptation measures, and researchers identify this as the primary reason that people in these countries tend to fare better in the face of disaster. In practice, this can look like more robust disaster preparation (early warning systems, rations stockpiles), immediate aftermath support (access to medical care, lodging, social services), and long-term recovery processes (rebuilding infrastructure, updating technology).

Developing nations often lack the infrastructure or funding to implement such measures. In many cases, some vulnerable communities were hit by disasters again and again likely without the resources to recover between events, leaving more people impacted by each subsequent disaster, researchers found.

The study underscores the potential of Nature-based Solutions (NbS) as effective, immediate, and cost-efficient tools for both adaptation and mitigation. These solutions not only reduce carbon emissions but also address the impacts of climate-related disasters. By protecting and restoring natural ecosystems, NbS offer multiple benefits beyond disaster resilience alone, including food security, economic development, and biodiversity conservation.

Each country and region can tailor the NbS to their respective disaster threats by protecting and/or restoring the area’s natural ecosystems. Some of these efforts have already proved successful in mitigating disaster risks around the world: protecting marshes in the Philippines limited the impacts of floods; protecting savannas through grazing management helped Kenya and Zimbabwe address drought impacts; and protecting mountain rainforests in Nepal managed the impacts of land and mudslides. Nearly 200 NbS projects have been undertaken globally, as detailed in the NbS Evidence Platform’s climate adaptation database.

The study, which includes Conservation International coauthors Giacomo Fedele and Alex Zvoleff, underscores the urgent need for concerted global action to address the human impacts of climate disasters, emphasizing the critical role of equitable adaptation measures and NbS in building resilient communities worldwide.


About Conservation International: Conservation International protects nature for the benefit of humanity. Through science, policy, fieldwork and finance, we spotlight and secure the most important places in nature for the climate, for biodiversity and for people. With offices in 30 countries and projects in more than 100 countries, Conservation International partners with governments, companies, civil society, Indigenous peoples and local communities to help people and nature thrive together. Go to Conservation.org for more, and follow our work on Conservation NewsFacebookTwitterTikTokInstagram and YouTube.