• Weather, climate and water-related hazards account for at least half of all global disasters over the past 50 years, according to new data.
  • The global bill for storm damage in the past half-century comes to $521 billion.
  • Scientists say climate change is accelerating extreme weather events.
  • But better forecasting and disaster management could reduce the death toll.

Without water, no living thing can survive. But too much or too little water can spell disaster. In fact, of the worst disasters affecting our planet during the past half-century, water-related ones have dominated.

That’s the conclusion of a new study by the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization (WMO). It warns that climate change is accelerating the frequency of severe storms, floods, droughts and extreme heat events.

The WMO is compiling an atlas which will record the deaths and economic losses from weather, climate and water extremes over the past 50 years. It’s due to be published in September, but a preview of the data shows that water-related events cost billions and are major killers.

this is the devastation caused by the Germany Flooding in July 2021
A car floats in a flooded street in Erftstadt-Blessem, Germany in July 2021.
Image: REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen

Droughts, for example, have killed 650,000 people in the past five decades, storms have claimed over 577,000 lives and almost 59,000 have died in floods. Extreme temperatures have resulted in over 55,000 deaths.

Weather, climate and water-related events account for half of all disasters – including technological crises like industrial accidents and oil spills – 45% of all reported deaths and 74% of global economic losses, according to the WMO data.

this graph shows where extreme weather is causing the most faculties
Myanmar has the most faculties due to extreme weather events.
Image: Statista

The economic toll

And the economic cost is staggering. The global bill for storm damage in the past 50 years comes to $521 billion. Floods cost $115 billion, with $377 billion of the storm and flood losses occurring in Europe alone.

A 2002 flood in Germany caused damage worth $16.5 billion, making it Europe’s costliest single disaster. And it’s getting worse. The WMO says 2021 has been “a summer of extremes” with unprecedented numbers of floods, heatwaves and wildfires.

this map shows where extreme heat hit in July 2021
A map showing which parts of the world were affected by extreme heat in July 2021.
Image: WMO

Laying the blame squarely on climate change, Dr Omar Baddour, WMO Head of Climate Monitoring and Policy, says: “This has brought unprecedented heat, droughts, cold and wet conditions in various places. The connection of this large-scale disturbance of [the] summer season with the warming of [the] Arctic and the heat accumulation in the ocean needs to be investigated.”

The human toll

In July 2021, two months’ worth of rain fell in two days across Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg, triggering floods which AP reported killed 208 people.

A man holding a baby wades through a flooded road following heavy rainfall in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China
A man carries a baby to safety as floods sweep through Zhengzhou in China on 22 July 2021.
Image: REUTERS/Aly Song

In the Chinese province of Henan, a whole year’s rainfall occurred in just four days in July. Reuters reported 25 dead including 12 passengers who drowned when a subway train flooded in the capital Zhengzhou.

Heat dome

Between 25 June and 1 July, the northwestern US and western Canada suffered a heatwave in which temperatures hit 50C, resulting in 500 deaths in British Columbia alone. Scientists at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) concluded climate change was the cause.

Their study found that the heatwave resulted from a “heat dome”, a slow moving area of intense high pressure which causes an area to heat up exponentially. Climate change, they said, made heat domes more likely by weakening the summer jet stream.

Early warning saves lives

Strengthening multi-hazard early warning systems is a vital first step to limiting damage and loss of life from extreme weather, says WMO Secretary-General Professor Petteri Taalas. With the ‘make or break’ COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland in September, Taalas is urging world leaders to invest in climate adaptation systems.

The 2021 edition of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report identified extreme weather as the third most clear and present danger to the world after infectious diseases and crises threatening people’s livelihoods.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Climate change poses an urgent threat demanding decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising seas. The World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.

To limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term climate actions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The World Economic Forum's Climate Initiative supports the scaling and acceleration of global climate action through public and private-sector collaboration. The Initiative works across several workstreams to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.

This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders from various industries developing cost-effective solutions to transitioning to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CEOs use their position and influence with policy-makers and corporate partners to accelerate the transition and realize the economic benefits of delivering a safer climate.

Contact us to get involved.

Warning that global cooperation on climate change has been weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic, the report said: “Climate change – to which no one is immune – continues to be a catastrophic risk. A shift towards greener economies cannot be delayed until the shocks of the pandemic subside.”

The Forum has also convened the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global community of CEOs committed to catalyzing action across all sectors and engaging policymakers to help deliver the transition to a net-zero economy.