UN Report: Weather disasters down in 2009 but trend still soaring

Disasters

Weather-related disasters dominate a rising trend. Graphic: Debarati Guha-Sapir

COPENHAGEN–The world’s leading experts on weather-related disasters sounded much like climate scientists this morning, urging the press and the public not to interpret an annual dip in numbers as an indication that global warming is less of a threat. Instead, they urged the world, pay attention to trends.

“There is a huge variability from year to year,” said Michel Jarraud, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, as the UN released its annual report on disasters at the UN Climate Change Conference here.

“It is important to keep in mind there is huge variability so we can keep in mind longer trends. Please try to figure out this trend.”

The world experienced 224 weather-related disasters in the first 11 months of 2009, compared to 316 in 2008. But from 1950 to 1964, the number never exceeded 50 disasters per year, and in 1976 it began to rise dramatically, peaking–so far–with nearly 450 weather-related disasters in 2004.

“Even though we are very happy the total disasters are less, the numbers are consistent with the patterns we have been seeing,” Jarraud said. “The number of these disasters are likely or very likely to become more intense.”

Eleven million people were affected by flooding in the first 11 months of 2009, compared to 45 million in 2008 and 108 million in 2007.

“This year as always, storms and floods were the main killers and most expensive disasters,” said Margareta Wahlstrom, representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Adding the numbers from droughts, heat waves, and wildfires, extreme weather overall killed 7,800 people so far in 2009, affected 55 million others and cost $19 billion in damages.

The number killed is going down because of improved disaster response, said Debarati Guha-Sapir, director of the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, but the cost is rising and expected to rise further.

“If you pull back and look at the perspective from 1975 or 1980, you are going to see that disasters are steadily increasing,” she said.

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