8 of the Riskiest Regions for Natural Disasters

Child wading in knee-deep water during flood
Southeast Asia is one of the world's most disaster-prone regions because of typhoon threats and its concentration of volcanoes.

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As the climate continues to change and spawn unpredictable weather patterns, an increasing number of places are becoming more susceptible to extremes: flooding, earthquakes, tsunamis, tropical cyclones, wildfires, landslides, and so forth. Scientists say the uptick in natural disasters is an early indication of climate breakdown, and some locales are getting the proverbial brunt of the storm.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in 2015 that of the 100 cities most exposed to natural hazards, 56% are concentrated in just four countries, the Philippines, China, Japan, and Bangladesh. More recent data compiled by the World Risk Index points to Oceania, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia as some of the most disaster-prone.

These eight regions are some of the most at risk for natural disasters in the world.

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Small Oceanian Islands

People of Vanuatu walking inland as cyclone blows in

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A World Risk Report published by Ruhr University Bochum in 2021 identified Vanuatu, an archipelago between Fiji and Australia, as the country with the highest disaster risk worldwide. The island chain is home to more than 250,000 people.

Vanuatu and other Oceanian islands like the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji are some of the highest on the list because extreme exposure and isolation put them at risk of storms rolling in from the Pacific, plus seismic activity, which increases the likelihood of tsunamis.

In Vanuatu, specifically, a category-five cyclone that hit at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic left much of the population homeless and without access to health care. The country has since ramped up its preparedness with a natural disaster-centered education and training curriculum called the Tropical Cyclone Harold Education Emergency Response Action Plan.

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The Caribbean

Aerial view of a beach surrounded by tree-covered mountains
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The Caribbean islands are especially vulnerable to hurricanes and earthquakes (plus associated landslides and tsunamis). Like the islands in Oceania, the Caribbean is at risk of natural disasters because of its exposure to the sea. The World Risk Report identified Dominica and Antigua and Barbuda as the fourth and fifth highest-risk countries, respectively.

In addition to the hazards that come from being primarily coastal, these islands also face the risk of volcanic activity. There are 19 active volcanoes in the Caribbean, including nine in Dominica.

These islands are ranked so high also because a big natural disaster could severely impact their most relied-upon economic sectors, agriculture and tourism. These and the Oceanian islands make up a portion of the United Nations' Small Island Developing States, islands facing "unique social, economic, and environmental vulnerabilities."

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Southeast Asia

Aerial view of flood surrounding a house in Thailand

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Sitting in what's called the Pacific Ring of Fire, a geographical ring in the Pacific Ocean where 75% of the world’s active volcanoes are located, it's no surprise that Southeast Asia is susceptible to natural disaster. The region alone is home to more than 700 active and potentially active volcanoes.

The waters off southeast Asia are also particularly warm and high compared to the eastern Pacific, which makes the region extra prone to storms. With the climate constantly changing, this collection of countries has seen an increase in typhoon frequency.

The most at-risk countries are Brunei Darussalam, the Philippines, and Cambodia.

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Central America

High view of Costa Rica crater emitting smoke at sunset
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Air and water currents coming in from the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other cause all kinds of tropical storms in Central America. In addition to hurricanes, this string of land that bridges North and South America is vulnerable to earthquakes and volcanoes.

A 680-mile chain of volcanoes known as the Central America Volcanic Arc, or CAVA, stretches along the Pacific Coast from Mexico to Panama. It's seen more than 200 eruptions over the past three centuries.

Central American countries that rank in the World Risk Report's top 15 are Guatemala—where three tectonic plates, the North American plate, the Caribbean plate, and the Cocos plate, come together—and Costa Rica, no stranger to 6.0-magnitude-or-higher seismic activity.

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South America's West Coast

Overturned car and destroyed building after a tsunami in Chile

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The United Nations' International Search and Rescue Advisory Group calls the west coast of South America "one of the most seismogenic zones in the world." More than a quarter of 8.0-magnitude earthquakes recorded in the world have occurred here. On the World Risk Report's map of hotspots, the whole coast is lit up in bright pink, indicating the highest hazard.

The region's seismic activity hails from the 99-mile-long Peru–Chile Trench. Earthquakes associated with this topographic depression have been known to spark landslides and tsunamis. This was the case for Chile in 2010, when a magnitude-8.8 quake lasting three minutes sent a wave into some 50 coastal towns, reaching as far north as San Diego.

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West Africa

Parched mountainous landscape, city, and bay on Cape Verde

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The whole continent of Africa is at high risk because of climate extremes (i.e., an extremely hot Saharan Desert) leading to widespread drought and deadly flooding. A 2010 World Bank study revealed that 80% of deaths and 70% of economic losses linked to natural disasters in the region were caused by droughts and flooding.

The World Risk Report says West Africa has the highest need for action—particularly Burkina Faso, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Niger, and Sierra Leone.

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Central Africa

Aerial view of drought-stricken desert landscape in central Africa

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Even Central Africa, mostly south of the Sahara Desert, is extremely prone to flooding. According to World Bank data, floods accounted for a third of natural disasters in the Central African Republic between 1900 and 2020. Storms accounted for about 26%, wildfire for 6%, and drought for about 3%.

Droughts in Africa are worsening with the warming climate, and diseases like typhoid, acute meningitis, and malaria run rampant during the dry season. It's not a coincidence that the African countries most susceptible to drought are the ones along the so-called "Meningitis Belt." The Meningitis Research Foundation says outbreaks are expected to worsen due to climate change in the coming decades.

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Buildings damaged by an earthquake with mountains in background

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China sits at the confluence of the Eurasian, Pacific, and Indian Ocean tectonic plates. It experiences a third of continental earthquakes deemed "destructive" globally. Because of the country's high concentration of hills and mountains, these earthquakes are more likely to cause landslides or fires in forested areas.

Of the 10 deadliest natural disasters on record, six occurred in China. They include the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which brought 85% of buildings in its namesake city down, and the deadly 1931 China floods, which killed between 1 million and 4 million people.

View Article Sources
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  3. "Small Island Developing States." United Nations.

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  5. "Central America: an active volcanic arc." Earth System Knowledge Platform.

  6. "Report on the status of Disaster Risk Reduction in Sub-Saharan Africa." World Bank. 2010.

  7. "Climate Risk Country Profile: Central Asia Republic." World Bank Group. 2021.

  8. "Is climate change our most significant health challenge?" Meningitis Research Foundation. 2019.

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