The death toll and level of destruction immediately following a disaster are always difficult to determine, but over time a consensus usually emerges between governments and aid organizations. But, as David Rieff points out, "Sadly, over the course of the past few decades, exaggeration seems to have become the rule in the world of humanitarian relief.… These days, only the most extreme, most apocalyptic situations are likely to move donors in the rich world." And with donor fatigue an ever-present possibility, it is no surprise then that later studies that contradict the original, inflated estimates are criticized -- or worse, ignored -- for seemingly undermining the humanitarian cause.
Arriving at these estimates is no easy endeavor, as government agencies and relief organization are rarely able to survey entire populations. Instead, emergency management experts rely on sound statistical and epidemiological techniques. But debating and questioning the numbers behind man-made and natural disasters is not just an academic exercise: the implications are huge. For example, relief agencies were restricted from operating in Darfur, partly because of Sudan's anger that the U.S.-based Save Darfur Coalition had estimated that 400,000 people were killed in the region. Moreover, the U.N. Security Council used the International Rescue Committee's death toll of 5.4 million in the Congo to put together its largest peacekeeping operation ever. Similarly, government aid pledges increase or decrease depending upon the extent of the disaster. Numbers do matter, and much depends upon their validity and credibility. What follows is a look at some recent disasters where the numbers just don't match up.
Above, a view of some of the destruction in Bandar Aceh, Indonesia, a week after the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck on Dec. 26, 2004. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 227,898 people died and about 1.7 million people were displaced in 14 countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and East Africa. Indonesia, the hardest hit country by the disaster, initially claimed that 220,000 people had died or went missing but ended up revising that number down to around 170,000.
Patrick M. Bonafede/U.S. Navy via Getty Images