Climate Action

This is the impact of extreme weather on lives and livelihoods

a man wades through a flooded road following heavy rainfall in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China July 23, 2021

Climate change is accelerating dangerous weather conditions, like this flooding in China. Image: REUTERS/Aly Song

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Climate Indicators

  • 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.”

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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.

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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.

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

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.

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