The Impact of Natural Disasters on Child Health and Investments in Rural India

Published in: Social Science Medicine, v. 76, no. 1, Jan. 2013, p. 83-91

Posted on RAND.org on January 01, 2012

by Ashlesha Datar, Jenny Liu, Sebastian Linnemayr, Chad Stecher

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Research Question

  1. How would small and moderate disasters, which are more typical than major disasters, affect childhood morbidity, physical growth, and immunizations?

There is growing concern that climate change will lead to more frequent natural disasters that may adversely affect short- and long-term health outcomes in developing countries. Prior research has primarily focused on the impact of single, large disaster events but very little is known about how small and moderate disasters, which are more typical, affect population health. In this paper, we present one of the first investigations of the impact of small and moderate disasters on childhood morbidity, physical growth, and immunizations by combining household data on over 80,000 children from three waves of the Indian National Family and Health Survey with an international database of natural disasters (EM-DAT). We find that exposure to a natural disaster in the past month increases the likelihood of acute illnesses such as diarrhea, fever, and acute respiratory illness in children under 5 year by 9-18%. Exposure to a disaster in the past year reduces height-for-age and weight-for-age z-scores by 0.12-0.15 units, increases the likelihood of stunting and underweight by 7%, and reduces the likelihood of having full age-appropriate immunization coverage by nearly 18%. We also find that disasters' effects vary significantly by gender, age, and socioeconomic characteristics. Most notably, the adverse effects on growth outcomes are much smaller among boys, infants, and families with more socioeconomic resources.

Key Findings

Exposure to a natural disaster:

  • increases the likelihood of acute illness such as diarrhea in children under the age of five
  • reduces height- and weight-for-age scores and the likelihood of full immunization coverage
  • increases the likelihood of stunting and being underweight.

Effects vary by gender, age, and socioeconomic characteristics.

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