Economic Progress

The economic costs of extreme weather are soaring, but number of deaths is falling fast. Here’s why

Floods are the most common among all climate disasters globally.

Floods are the most common among all climate disasters globally. Image: Unsplash/kellysikkema

Ian Shine
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Economic Progress

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  • The total economic costs from weather, climate and water-related disasters reached $4.3 trillion over the past 50 years, with rises in every decade, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says.
  • But there has been a reverse trend in the number of deaths caused by these events, with a steep drop after 1980-1989 and another big drop in 2010-2019.
  • The decline in deaths is down to an increase in early warning systems, according to the WMO, which aims to ensure global access to them by the end of 2027.

There has been one disaster every day as a result of weather, climate or water hazards over the past 50 years. That’s an average figure provided by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which also says the number of such disasters has increased fivefold over this period, hitting 11,778 between 1970 and 2021.

Unsurprisingly, the economic cost of these events is heading upwards as a result. The total loss from weather, climate and water-related disasters reached $4.3 trillion for the period, with rises in every decade, a new WMO report says.

But there has been a reverse trend in the number of deaths caused by these events, with a steep drop after 1980-1989 and another in 2010-2019.

Deaths related to weather and climate disasters are falling, but the economic costs are rising fast.
Deaths related to weather and climate disasters are falling, but the economic costs are rising fast. Image: World Meteorological Organization

Why are deaths from weather-related disasters declining?

The drop in deaths is down to better early warning systems and coordinated disaster management, the WMO says.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres wants every person on Earth to be protected by early warning systems by the end of 2027 and is calling for targeted investments of $3.1 billion to achieve this.

  • Monitoring of how those risks and vulnerabilities are changing.
  • Communication of warnings into actionable messages for affected communities.
  • Responses to reduce risk levels once potential disasters are detected (this could range from disaster mitigation or evacuation, depending on the timescale).
  • Education about emergency risks and priorities in such circumstances.

The Philippines has a network of early warning systems for floods in small and medium-sized river basins, where water levels can rise rapidly. The system, established with German development agency Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, uses satellite information and other data to flag potentially dangerous rises in upstream water levels.

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Early warning systems for tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic activity and landslides are in place. Signs of forest fires and heat waves are also being monitored and publicized by such systems.

More lives are being saved thanks to early warning systems but it is also true that the number of people exposed to disaster risk is increasing due to population growth in hazard-exposed areas and the growing intensity and frequency of weather events,” says Mami Mizutori, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction and Head of United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Climate disasters have a disproportionate effect on developing countries

Natural disasters and extreme weather events are ranked as the second-most severe risk facing the world over the next two years in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023, which notes that such events disproportionately affect low- and middle-income countries.

Natural disasters and extreme weather events are one of the biggest risks facing the world.
Natural disasters and extreme weather events are one of the biggest risks facing the world. Image: World Economic Forum

The WMO says over 90% of the 2 million disaster-related deaths in the past 50 years took place in developing countries.

In Africa, disasters associated with floods were most common, accounting for 60% of the total, but droughts caused 95% of disaster-related deaths.

Storms caused 72% of the loss of life from such events in Asia, while floods accounted for 57% of economic losses. Floods were also the most common disaster in South America, as well as the biggest cause of financial damage and death.

Floods are the most common weather-related disaster globally.
Floods are the most common weather-related disaster globally. Image: World Meteorological Organization

“We need greater investment in comprehensive disaster risk management, ensuring that climate change adaptation is integrated in national and local disaster risk reduction strategies,” Mizutori says.

The economic costs of weather-related disasters

More than $200 million of damage was caused every day by weather and climate disasters over the past 50 years, the WMO says.

Staggering as that is, the average reached $383 million per day for 2010-2019 – almost eight times higher than the $49 million per day taking place in 1970-1979.

Three of the four costliest disasters took place in the US in 2017. These were Hurricane Harvey with $96.9 billion of damage, Hurricane Maria with $69.4 billion and Hurricane Irma with $58.2 billion.

Table showing the top ten disasters ranked according to reported deaths and economic losses, 1970-2019.
The six costliest disasters of the past 50 years all took place in the US. Image: World Meteorological Organization

Regionally, North America tops the list of economic damage from weather and climate disasters, at $1.7 trillion in 1970-2019. It is followed by Asia on $1.2 trillion, Europe on $476.5 billion and the South-West Pacific region on $163.7 billion.

South America faced $39.2 billion of losses and Africa $38.5 billion. Lower-income regions tend to face lower economic costs from disasters given their comparably lower levels of development, with less infrastructure likely to be hit. But given their lower GDP and often higher death rates, this does not make the impact less severe.

Just half of the WMO’s 193 members currently have multi-hazard early warning systems. But like the UN’s António Guterres, it wants to help secure early warning systems for all by the end of 2027.

“These systems are not a luxury but a cost-effective tool that saves lives, reduces economic losses, and provides a nearly tenfold return on investment,” it says.

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Economic ProgressClimate Change
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