With urban populations outnumbering rural populations for the first time in history, the potential for natural disasters to devastate communities has never been higher. Earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis and flooding could have catastrophic consequences if they hit the wrong place at the wrong time.
But which cities are most at risk? Reinsurance giant Swiss Re recently published a report, the most up-to-date and thorough study of its kind, which revealed the top ten cities most at risk of natural disasters. The study into account how likely serious natural disaster were in each location, the size of the population that could be affected, and the potential effect of a natural disaster on the local and national economy in each place. Here we look at the potential dangers facing each city, and look back at some of the worst disasters they have faced in the past.
10 Tehran, Iran
Tehran is “highly exposed” to earthquake risk, according to the Swiss Re report. It’s been estimated that a million people could be killed if the city was hit by an earthquake of the same magnitude to the one that Haiti in 2010. Amazingly, geologists in the country have even tried to get the Iranian Government to move the capital to another location because they perceive the risk to the people living there to be so great. This is obviously unlikely to happen any time soon, but it is only a matter of time before Tehran is hit by a major earthquake again.
9 Los Angeles, USA
Los Angeles is the only place in North America to make this list. Flooding poses a major threat to large parts of the city, with much of it deluged in 1938 when two Pacific storm swept in causing rivers to burst their banks, killing 113 people. But it is earthquakes that are the biggest threat.
Several major ones have hit in the past, including the 6.7-magnitude Northridge earthquake of 1994 which killed 60 people. Los Angeles is at such major risk of quakes as it lies on the San Andreas fault, which caused the famous 1906 earthquake that destroyed much of San Fransisco. That earthquake measured 7.8 on the richter scale, but scientists say it is inevitable one measuring above 8 will hit the west coast of America at some point in the future. The only question is when.
8 Shanghai, China
Shanghai is one of the world’s fastest growing urban areas, with a population of around 15 million people. Due to its location, it is exposed to frequent tropical cyclones that sweep in from the East China Sea and the resulting storm surges. River flooding is also a major risk in Shanghai. The city is low-lying (and is actually sinking), with the homes of 11.7 million people at risk of floodwaters if the Yangtze burst its banks. Because of Shanghai’s large population and its role as a financial hub, the economic consequences of a large-scale natural disaster in the city would be enormous. In August 2012 Typhoon Haikui — which means “sea anemone” in English — 200,000 people had to be evacuated from the city. In surrounding areas, 4,452 homes were destroyed.
7 Kolkata, India
Kolkata is one of the most populated cities in India — and it faces a double peril. It is under serious threat of flooding from the Hooghly river, with more than 10.5million people at risk. And more than 600,000 people could also potentially be affected through storm surges if a large-scale tsunami were to hit the north-east coast of India. A huge proportion of the population living in slum housing, which would easily be destroyed in the event of a flood or massive storm surge. And the lack of sanitation means the spread of disease in the aftermath of a large-scale disaster could also have a devastating effect.
6 Nagoya, Japan
Nagoya is another city that is at huge risk of flooding and tsunamis. Around 2.4 million people could be affected if a large tsunami were to sweep in from the Pacific as the result of a storm surge or under-water earthquake. Torrential rains as a result of storms can also leave large swathes of the city under water. In 2000, 45,000 people had to be evacuated when the area suffered the heaviest rains in more than a century. Nagoya is also exposed earthquakes, with 9.4 million people at risk of being affected by a large-scale tremor. Because of Nagoya’s economic importance, the monetary toll would be massive if a serious natural disaster hit the city.
5 Jakarta, Indonesia
Nearly 18 million people in Jakarta at risk from earthquakes — and a big one could be calamitous for the city. Only Tokyo-Yokohama has more people in one area that could potentially be affected by a natural disaster taking place. The 2004 earthquake and tsunami in nearby Aceh — which is far less populated than Jakarta — killed more than 170,000 people, showing just how bad an earthquake in this area can be. The bad news is that experts believe Jakarta will definitely be hit by a strong earthquake at some point in the future. The problem is, nobody knows when.
4 Osaka-Kobe, Japan
This megalopolis is the agglomeration of two cities, Osaka and Kobe. It is another area that is at a combined risk from more than one natural disaster. Over three million people in Osaka-Kobe are risk of typhoons, which can cause huge wind damage. And because the cities lie on the coast, 1.8 million people are exposed to tsunamis. But those natural disasters pale in comparison to the danger posed to the area by earthquakes. Kobe was the location of one of the most deadly tremors in history when on January 17 1995 a 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck the city. The epicenter was just 12 miles away, and the shockwaves caused massive damage. Nearly 6,500 people died, with more than two thirds from Kobe. The quake caused around $100billion in damage.
3 Pearl River Delta, China
The Pearl River Delta is a large area of land on the Chinese Pacific coast, which includes both Hong Kong and Macau. It is extremely densely populated, and is home to more than 42 million people. They all live there despite the enormous risks the area holds. Typhoons are a common occurrence, battering the delta with high winds and heavy rains. There is also the potential for severe coastal and river flooding, and to top it all off the Pearl River Delta lies in an earthquake zone. In September 2013, Typhoon Usagi battered the region with 110mph winds, killing at least 25 people and affecting 3.5 million. Hong Kong luckily avoided the brunt of its force, or the death toll could have been far worse.
2 Manila, Philippines
Manila is another of the world’s fastest-growing cities, and is again heavily at risk from seismic activity. More than 16.8 million people could potentially be affected by a large-scale earthquake in the city. Typhoons and river flooding are also a major risk. Manila is the worst city in the world in terms of how much economic damage a natural disaster would cause relative to the country’s national economy — as it is the main financial and industrial hub of the Philippines. If businesses were forced to stop work or destroyed, the entire country would feel the effects. Manila is so high up this list for that reason, and due to the multiple potential disasters that could take place.
1 Tokyo/Yokohama, Japan
Tokyo/Yokohama is the largest city in the world, if counted as one metropolitan area. It is home to more than 37 million people, living in extremely densely populated conditions. The area sits at the top of the list because, like Manila, it is at risk of falling victim to multiple natural disasters — although earthquakes and typhoons pose the biggest risk. Because of the number of people living in the area, the potential human toll is by far and away the highest. Tokyo is also the economic center of Japan’s economy, meaning any potential catastrophe would have far-reaching consequences. In 1923 the Great Kanto earthquake, measuring 7.9 on the richter scale, devastated Tokyo and Yokohama, killing more than 140,000 people. A similar-sized earthquake today could be catastrophic.