January 30, 2006

Floods and Drought Boost Global Disasters in 2005

By Richard Waddington

GENEVA -- More frequent floods and drought, blamed by some scientists on global warming, brought a near 20 percent rise in natural disasters in 2005, researchers said on Monday.

But the death toll fell to 91,963 from 244,577 in 2004 when the figures were swollen by the impact of the Asian tsunami, the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) and Belgium's Louvain research center said in a report.

Over 80 percent of the fatalities in 2005 came from a single disaster -- October's devastating earthquake in Kashmir and Pakistan's North West Frontier Province -- just as the tsunami caused over 90 percent of deaths a year earlier.

Without the earthquake and the tsunami, the death toll in both years was under 20,000, confirming a trend for more frequent, but less lethal disasters.

"That is the goods news," said professor Debarati Guha Sapir, of the Louvain Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED).

The bad news was that rising urbanization, with people in developing countries often crowding into environmentally dangerous areas around big cities, meant the risk of disasters was growing, said ISDR director Salvano Briceno.

"These figures reaffirm trends we have been observing for the past decade," he said. "Less people are dying from disasters, but there are many more long-term, negative implications for sustainable human development," he said.

"Countries and communities need to understand their risks, invest in resources and prioritize their policies to reduce their vulnerability to natural disasters," he said.

In 2005, there were 360 natural disasters, ranging from hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,322 people in New Orleans, to a measles epidemic in Nigeria in which more than 500 died.

Floods and droughts made up 237 of the total.

Disasters affected the lives of 157.5 million people -- meaning they were killed, injured, required immediate assistance or evacuated -- up from 150.4 million the year before.

"The increase (in disasters) is mainly due to the rising numbers of floods and droughts that affect large swathes of a population," said Guha Sapir.

But droughts and floods tend to be less deadly than earthquakes and storms, hence the lower death tolls, she added.

Disasters cost $159 billion in 2005, up 71 percent from 2004, almost entirely because of hurricane Katrina, which alone cost $125 billion.