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UN: Natural Disasters Rose Last Year

A new report shows the number of natural disasters around the world rose by 18 percent last year, killing nearly 92,000 people, affecting the lives of 157 million people, and causing hundreds of billions of dollars in economic damage. The figures were compiled by the Belgian Universite Catholique de Louvain's Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters and the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction in Geneva.

Last year's loss of life from natural disasters was significantly lower than in 2004 when nearly one-quarter of one million people died. Although the numbers of people killed in the last two years is high compared to figures from the last decade, the report notes that most disaster-related deaths were due to a single incident of devastating proportions. In 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami claimed the most lives. Last year, it was the South Asian earthquake.

The Head of the Louvain's Center for Research, Debrati Guha Sapir, says most deaths occur in poor countries, whereas the largest amount of economic damage happens in rich countries. In 2005, she says disasters cost $159 billion in damage, with Hurricane Katrina that slammed into the U.S. gulf coast accounting for $125 billion in losses.

"If you compare the tsunami in Asia, you have very high deaths, 226,000 – 250,000 people dead, a quarter of a million, and you have eight percent of the total amount of economic damage in that whole year for that tsunami," she said. "[The] Earthquake in Pakistan, even less. You have 73,000 deaths and you have only three percent of the total economic damage for Pakistan. Hurricane Katrina, you have 1,300 dead and there you have 78 percent of the total economic damage for just that one single disaster."

Last year, the report finds there were 360 natural disasters compared to 305 the year before. It says the increase was mainly due to the rising numbers of floods and droughts, followed by windstorms. Pakistan, Guatemala and the United States had the largest number of deaths and China, India and the United States had the largest number of disasters.

The Director of the U.N.'s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Salvano Briceno, says additional threats such as global warming, environmental degradation and rapid urbanization make millions of people more vulnerable to natural hazards.

"Natural hazards are becoming very rapidly an increasing threat to development," he said. "There is also a worrying trend, which is the increasing urbanization. Although we are in a process of reducing the number of deaths, there is an increasing potential for greater disasters in the future. That is our concern, that if we do not work more actively on reducing urban risks and environmental risks, we may be in for bigger disasters in the future."

Briceno says it may not be possible to prevent natural disasters from happening, but their impact can be reduced. For example, he says earthquakes cannot be stopped, but buildings can be constructed so they will not be destroyed and will not fall on people and kill them.