By Megan Rowling
Governments around the world are underestimating the costs of disasters, particularly smaller ones triggered by weather and climate extremes.
As a result, efforts to reduce risk are being undermined, the United Nations' new disaster prevention chief says.
Australian Robert Glasser, who became head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction this month, warned on Tuesday (local time) that lower-level disasters – such as droughts and floods that hit provinces or regions rather than entire countries – are happening more often.
That is increasing the financial burden of helping those affected, putting a growing strain on an already over-stretched international aid system.
"Not only are we falling short in being able to fund the big visible disasters, we're also falling short in meeting the ones below the radar screen, that still affect many tens of thousands of people," Glasser said.
In many cases, communities hit by dry spells or flash floods are less able to cope than in the past, due to wider problems of environmental degradation, he added.
The former secretary general of aid agency CARE International said a farmer he met several years ago in a part of Ethiopia that had suffered four droughts in less than a decade told him that, as a child, he recalled enduring only one similar drought.
Back then, his family survived by eating food they gathered in the forest – but now there was no forest left as it had been cut down.
The Horn of Africa country is facing yet another hunger crisis, with more than 10 million Ethiopians expected to need food aid this year amid a drought exacerbated by the current strong El Niño weather phenomenon.
Meteorologists have forecast that El Niño, linked to warmer-than-usual Pacific Ocean surface waters, will fizzle in a few months but may be followed by a La Niña event. This cooling of the Pacific Ocean also brings extreme weather around the world.
"I feel confident that this issue [of disaster risk reduction] will only grow in importance on the agenda, because the problems are going to get worse," Glasser said.
A report released by UNISDR in November revealed that over the last 20 years, 90 percent of disasters were caused by floods, storms, heatwaves and other weather-related events.
Glasser predicted the economic costs of disasters would rise as the impacts of climate change – which include more extreme weather and rising seas – increase.
In a risk report, the United Nations said last year the cost of disasters worldwide had reached an average of US$250 billion to US$300 billion every year.
But totals reported by big insurance firms tend to come in far below that, as they do not account for losses from repeated, smaller-scale disasters in poorer countries, experts say.
"One of the problems with disaster risk reduction is that even governments haven't quantified the costs of disasters, and unless they can put a price on it, if you talk to a finance ministry, they have competing priorities," Glasser said.
According to the UNISDR, about 85 countries now have databases tracking disaster losses, a figure expected to rise to over 115 this year.