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Better preparation is preventing deaths despite worsening climate disasters, UN says

A polling official enjoys a cooling spray of water under intense heat on the eve of the fifth phase of polling in national election in Lucknow, India, Sunday May 19, 2024.
A polling official enjoys a cooling spray of water under intense heat on the eve of the fifth phase of polling in national election in Lucknow, India, Sunday May 19, 2024. Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Greta Ruffino with AP
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While there are fewer deaths globally from disasters, there are still pockets in the poorest of countries, especially in Africa.

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Climate disasters are getting worse, but fewer people are dying thanks to better warning systems and planning, says a top UN official.

"Fewer people are dying of disasters and if you look at that as a proportion of total population, it's even fewer," the new United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Kamal Kishore, head the UN's office for disaster risk reduction, said.

“Twenty years ago there was no tsunami early warning system except for one small part of the world. Now the whole world is covered by a tsunami warning system," he said, referring to the 2004 tsunami that claimed approximately 230,000 lives in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.

How are people better prepared for climate-related disasters?

According to Kishore people are getting better warnings about tropical cyclones - also called hurricanes and typhoons - so now the chances of dying in a tropical cyclone in a place like the Philippines are about one-third of what they were 20 years ago.

Better hospital preparation and general improvements have also reduced deaths and handled a surge in births during cyclones.

In 1999, a super cyclone in eastern India killed nearly 10,000 people. A similar storm in 2013 killed only a few dozen. Last year, under Kishore's watch, Cyclone Biparjoy killed fewer than 10 people.

 Workers restore electricity after cyclone biparjoy in Gujarat, India, Friday, June 16, 2023.
Workers restore electricity after cyclone biparjoy in Gujarat, India, Friday, June 16, 2023. AP Photo

The same goes for flood deaths, the former disaster chief for India, Kishore pointed out.

Global deaths per storm event have dropped from a ten-year average of about 24 in 2008 to a ten-year average of about 8 in 2021, according to a global disaster database created by disaster epidemiologist Debarati Guha-Sapir of the Catholic University of Louvain in Brussels,

Flood deaths per event have decreased from ten-year averages of nearly 72 to about 31, her data indicates.

What can be further improved?

While there are fewer deaths globally from disasters, there are still pockets in the poorest of countries, especially in Africa, where deaths are worsening or at least staying the same, Guha-Sapir said.

Countries like India and Bangladesh have developed warning systems, reinforced infrastructure like hospitals, and have disaster preparedness plans due to growing wealth and education. However, poorer nations and communities lack resources to adequately protect themselves, she noted.

India and Bangladesh are poster nations for better dealing with disasters and preventing deaths, especially in cyclones.

"Bangladesh has done fantastic work in disaster risk reduction for years and years and years," Guha-Sapir.

In 1970, a cyclone killed more than 300,000 people in Bangladesh in one of the 20th century's greatest natural disasters.

"Fewer people are dying, but that's not because climate change is not happening,'' Kishore said "That is despite the climate change. And that is because we have invested in resilience, invested in early warning systems.''

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Kishore said climate change is making his job tougher, yet he said doesn't feel like Sisyphus, the mythical man pushing a giant boulder up a hill.

A Brazilian soldier carries a dog after rescuing it from a flooded area after heavy rain in Canoas, Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil, Thursday, May 9, 2024.
A Brazilian soldier carries a dog after rescuing it from a flooded area after heavy rain in Canoas, Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil, Thursday, May 9, 2024.AP Photo

"You are getting more intense hazards, more frequently and (in) new geographies," Kishore said, saying places, like Brazil that used to not worry too much about floods now are getting devastated.

The same goes for extreme heat, which he said used to be an issue for only certain countries, but now has gone global, pointing to nearly 60,000 heat wave deaths in Europe in 2022.

India, where temperatures have been flirting with 50 degrees Celsius, has reduced heat deaths with specific regional plans, Kishore said.

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"However with the new extreme temperatures we are seeing, every country needs to double its efforts to save lives," he said. And that means looking at the built environment of cities, he added.

Cutting deaths is only part of the battle to reduce risk, according to Kishore.

"We are doing a better job of saving lives but not of livelihoods," he said said.

"You look at people who are losing their houses, people who are losing their businesses, a small farmer that is running a poultry farm."

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After surviving floods or storms, people may survive, but they are left with nothing - no seeds, no fishing boats.

"On that we're not doing as well as we should," Kishore said. "We cannot accept that losses will occur. Of course they will occur, but they could be minimized by an order of magnitude."

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