The deadliest, and costliest, earthquakes in recent history

When disaster strikes.
When disaster strikes.
Image: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar
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As rescuers search for survivors of Nepal’s devastating earthquake, they bring with it a grim accounting—at the time of writing, there are more than 3,600 confirmed dead and more than 6,500 injured, according to the Nepalese police. With many remote mountain villages affected by the quake and its aftershocks, the human toll is likely to rise in the days to come. The US Geological Survey’s latest estimate puts a better than 50% chance that fatalities will eventually rise to 10,000 or more.

Although saving lives is the focus for now, the terrible cost to Nepal’s economy and cultural heritage is also becoming clear. The financial damage may amount to a significant chunk of Nepal’s $20 billion annual GDP, to say nothing of the many priceless monuments and artifacts that have been lost.

On a relative scale, the damage is devastating. In absolute terms, too, the Nepal earthquake will be among the deadliest in recent history, likely among the top 20 of the past 50 years. Here are the top 10:

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Given Nepal’s limited economic development, the overall financial cost will be smaller than less deadly natural disasters in other places. Nepal’s tragedy will follow a similar pattern to other earthquakes—2010 in Haiti, 2005 in Kashmir, and 2004 in the Indian Ocean—that resulted in a massive loss of life but limited financial losses for the global economy, and specifically the insurance industry:

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Swiss Re, the global reinsurance company, recently noted (pdf) that although there were a record number of natural catastrophes last year, the number of related fatalities was one of the lowest ever (at around 7,000). “Improvements in early warning systems and emergency preparedness meant fewer victims than otherwise may have been,” the reinsurer said.

That is less true in some places—when disaster strikes one of the world’s poorest countries, the human costs remain depressingly high.