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The Human Cost of Weather Related Disasters – UN Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disaster

November 30, 2015

THCOWRDOver the last twenty years, 90% of major disasters have been caused by 6,457 recorded floods, storms, heatwaves, droughts and other weather-related events.

The five countries hit by the highest number of disasters are the United States (472), China (441), India (288), Philippines (274), and Indonesia, (163).

Since the first Climate Change Conference (COP1) in 1995, 606,000 lives have been lost and 4.1 billion people have been injured, left homeless or in need of emergency assistance as a result of weather-related disasters.

The extent of the toll taken by disasters on society is revealed by other statistics from CRED’s Emergency Events Data Base, or EM-DAT: 87 million homes were damaged or destroyed over the period of the survey.

Floods accounted for 47% of all weather-related disasters from 1995-2015, affecting 2.3 billion people and killing 157,000. Storms were the deadliest type of weather-related disaster, accounting for 242,000 deaths or 40% of the global weather-related deaths, with 89% of these deaths occurring in lower-income countries.

Overall, heatwaves accounted for 148,000 of the 164,000 lives lost due to extreme temperatures. 92% of heatwave deaths occurred in high-income countries, with Europe accounting for 90%.

Drought affects Africa more than any other continent, with EM-DAT recoding 136 events there between 1995 and 2015, including 77 droughts in East Africa alone. The report recommends that there needs to be improved data collection on indirect deaths from drought.


“Weather and climate are major drivers of disaster risk and this report demonstrates that the world is paying a high price in lives lost. Economic losses are a major development challenge for many least developed countries battling climate change and poverty.

“In the long term, an agreement in Paris at COP21 on reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be a significant contribution to reducing damage and loss from disasters which are partly driven by a warming globe and rising sea levels. For now, there is a need to reduce existing levels of risk and avoid creating new risk by ensuring that public and private investments are risk-informed and do not increase the exposure of people and economic assets to natural hazards on flood plains, vulnerable low-lying coastlines or other locations unsuited for human settlement.”

“Climate change, climate variability and weather events are a threat to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals’ overall target of eliminating poverty. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackle other risk drivers such as unplanned urban development, environmental degradation and gaps in early warnings. This all requires ensuring people are risk informed and strengthening institutions which manage disaster risk.”

Population growth will continue to put more and more people in harm’s way, while uncontrolled building on flood plains and storm-prone coastal zones will increase human vulnerabilities to extreme weather events. The cost of such vulnerability is already evident from mounting death tolls since 1995, which have risen on average despite an overall decline in the absolute and relative numbers of people affected by weather-related disasters

In order to be recorded as a natural disaster in EM-DAT, an event must meet at least one of the following criteria:

  • Ten or more people reported killed
  • 100 or more people reported affected
  • Declaration of a state of emerge

Asia bore the brunt of weather-related disasters, with more frequent events and greater numbers of people killed and affected than any other continent. This is due mainly to Asia’s large and varied landmass, including multiple river basins, flood plains and other zones at high risk from natural hazards, plus high population densities in disaster-prone regions.

In total, 2,495 weather-related disasters struck Asia between 1995 and 2015, affecting 3.7 billion people and killing a further 332,000 individuals. In terms of countries, USA and China reported the highest numbers of weather-related disasters during this period. Again, this can be attributed to their large and heterogeneous landmasses and population concentration.

Scientific evidence suggests that climate change will increase the upward trend in the numbers of floods and storms worldwide, while the population requiring protection can be expected to increase at the same rate as population growth in disaster-prone regions. On the positive side, weather forecasting has made extraordinary progress in recent years, with predictions now highly reliable within a 48-hour period. In the

face of climate change, we may not be able to stem the increased frequency of storms, but better risk management and mitigation could reduce deaths tolls and other heavy losses from these predictable hazards.

In total, EM-DAT recorded more than one billion people affected by droughts in the period 1995-2015; that is more than a quarter of all people affected by all types of weather- related disasters worldwide even though drought accounted for less than 5% of all natural hazards

It is likely that extreme wildfires will become more and more frequent as a result of climate change as unusually high temperatures and droughts contribute to the increasing numbers of outbreaks

EM-DAT recorded 87 million homes damaged or destroyed by weather-related disasters since 1995, plus 130,000 damaged or destroyed schools, clinics, hospitals and other critical health and education facilities.

Floods and storms together accounted for around 98% of houses damaged and 99.9% of education health and education facilities


While better data are required to count the full human cost, EM-DAT records already demonstrate that weather-related disasters impact heavily on rich and poor alike.

  • Economic losses from weather- and climate-related disasters have been heavily influenced by increasing exposure of people and economic assets.
  • Better management, mitigation and deployment of early warnings could save more lives in future.
  • Better flood control for poorer communities at high risk of recurrent flooding would be another step forward. Effective low-cost solutions exist, including afforestation, reforestation, floodplain zoning, embankments, better warnings and restoration of wetlands.
  • Reducing the size of drought-vulnerable populations should be a global priority given the effectiveness of early warnings and the fact that one billion people have been affected over the last twenty years.
  • There is a requirement for strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk with clear vision, competence, plans, guidelines and coordination across sectors.
  • Public and private investment in disaster risk prevention and reduction through structural and non-structural measures needs to be stepped up to create disaster-resilient societies

The report is online here

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