Goldman School of Public Policy - University of California, Berkeley

Working Paper Series

Destruction, Disinvestment, and Death: Economic and Human Losses Following Environmental Disaster

Authors

  • Solomon Hsiang, Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley
  • Jesse Keith Anttila-Hughes, University of San Francisco

History

  • Goldman School of Public Policy Working Paper (February 2013)

Abstract

The immediate physical damages caused by environmental disasters are conspicuous and often the focus of media and government attention. In contrast, the nature and magnitude of post-disaster losses remain largely unknown because they are not easily observable. Here we exploit annual variation in the incidence of typhoons (West-Pacific hurricanes) to identify post-disaster losses within Filipino households. We find that unearned income and excess infant mortality in the year after typhoon exposure outnumber immediate damages and death tolls roughly 15-to-1. Typhoons destroy durable assets and depress incomes, leading to broad expenditure reductions achieved in part through disinvestments in health and human capital. Infant mortality mirrors these economic responses, and additional findings -- that only female infants are at risk, that sibling competition elevates risk, and that infants conceived after a typhoon are also at risk -- indicate that this excess mortality results from household decisions made while coping with post-disaster economic conditions. We estimate that these post-typhoon "economic deaths" constitute 13% of the overall infant mortality rate in the Philippines. Taken together, these results indicate that economic and human losses due to environmental disaster may be an order of magnitude larger than previously thought and that adaptive decision-making may amplify, rather than dampen, disasters' social cost.

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