People at risk

The year 1998 was not just the hottest year in a millennium.
It was also the first in which more people fled disaster than war, according to the international Red Cross.

Drought, floods, deforestation and poor agricultural prospects drove some 25 million environmental refugees off the land into already crowded shanty towns.

That year, they represented 58% of the total refugee population worldwide.

Disasters, of course, can be tectonic (earthquakes, volcanoes) or man-made (deforestation) without being climatic. But the Red Cross - in its annual World Disasters Report - found that climatic unpredictability caused by global warming was "colliding" with social problems like rapid urbanization to create "super-disasters".

Storm victims buried in mass graves

Hurricane Mitch, which smashed into Central America in October 1998, was among the first to be identified as such. One of the strongest storms ever recorded in the Atlantic, it was also one of the most unpredictable. When it moved inland after making landfall on the coast of Honduras, the country was taken by surprise.

Mitch dumped phenomenal quantities of rain onto often illegal barrios built on deforested hillsides that quickly collapsed, causing lethal mudslides. It swept away entire villages, flattened the centre of the Honduran capital and turned rivers into lakes overnight. Some storm victims had to be buried anonymously in mass graves.

There's been nothing like Mitch since.

But insurance claims for four recent hurricanes - Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne - could top $20 billion, according to the Insurance Bureau of America.

And the human cost is deadly. Hurricane Jeanne alone killed 1,500 people in desperately-poor Haiti, where again deforestation was believed to have made things much worse.

France was shaken to the core by the heatwave

Even industrialized countries, with high-tech meteorological and rescue services, have begun to feel the full impact of destructive climate change.

In August 2003 an extreme heatwave in France took nearly 15,000 lives - many of them neglected elderly people.

From one extreme to the other, in Britain the insurance industry said that $370 billion worth of property was now at risk from river or coastal flooding.

The worst typhoon in more than a decade tore through Japan in October 2004, killing nearly 100 people.

Earlier in the year, the farmers of eastern Australia were only just recovering from bush fires and the worst drought for 100 years when they were hit by great swarms of locusts.

Some small island nations face obliteration

Some countries - especially the world's small island nations - face complete obliteration from climate change and rising sea levels.

Take the Maldives - a string of coral islands in the Indian Ocean which some scientists predict will be inundated completely within 30 years. Three of the archipelago's 280 inhabited islands have already been evacuated, and a new capital, Hulhumale, is being built on a reef bolstered with sand. When completed in 2020, it should house close to half the country's current population of 340,000.

Miskito woman with her little girl, in village destroyed by Hurricane Mitch. La Mosquitia, Honduras ... / ©: Nigel DICKINSON / WWF-Canon
Miskito woman with her little girl, in village destroyed by Hurricane Mitch. La Mosquitia, Honduras. November 1998.
© Nigel DICKINSON / WWF-Canon

I have lost my crops almost five times in last few years. Crops are badly damaged when brackish water enters into agricultural land after breaching the embankments.

Sheikh Hazra Bewa, Sundarbans, India

 / ©: WWF / Godlove Mwansojo
Rajabu Mohammed Soselo, WWF climate witness, and his family, in front of their house in Kunduchi, a coastal village near Tanzania’s capital Dar Es Salaam.
© WWF / Godlove Mwansojo

The seashore is now much closer to my village, with dramatic consequences. For example, a mosque and five residential houses have been washed away by the sea over the years.

Rajab Mohammed Soselo, Tanzania

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