Thursday, December 25, 2014

U.N. Disaster Chief Warns of More Natural Catastrophes to Come

United Nations Emblem (Credit: Click to Enlarge.
Thailand’s Khao Lak coast 10 years ago was a wasteland of palm beaches littered with the detritus of destroyed hotels and corpses blackened by the tropical sun.

Margareta Wahlstrom, the United Nations’ top official on natural disasters, will be in Khao Lak on Friday for the anniversary of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami with a message: “Expect events to happen that you have never seen before.  There will be no letup in the coming decades.”

Spurred partly by the tsunami, which the United Nations says killed more than 227,000 people, many countries have built early warning systems and other defenses against natural disasters, said Ms. Wahlstrom, the head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.

The perception among some developed countries that disasters mostly afflict poor countries has changed since Hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and Sandy in 2012, earthquakes in Italy, repeated heavy flooding in Central Europe, and wildfires in the United States and Russia.  “Everywhere, things are going on that didn’t go on 10 years ago,” Ms. Wahlstrom said.

Between 1970 and 2012, nearly two million people died in 8,835 disasters, according to a “mortality atlas” the United Nations produced this year, estimating the economic losses at $2.4 trillion.  Although data is still imprecise, Ms. Wahlstrom said the United Nations and business accepted that natural disasters cost the global economy about $250 billion a year, probably much more.

Moreover, those estimates do not take into account the long-term and indirect costs of disasters in the form of ruined businesses, unemployment, homelessness and health costs.

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