2008 confirmed rise in weather disasters: Red Cross

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A global trend toward increasing weather-related disasters was confirmed in 2008, the second deadliest year in the past decade for natural catastrophes, an annual Red Cross report said on Tuesday.

A child waves in front of a Red Cross centre in Yaounde March 20, 2009. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

The number of people reported killed by natural disasters last year -- a total of 235,736 -- was surpassed only in 2004, the year of the Indian Ocean tsunami, said the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

The 2008 toll was accounted for mainly by two events in Asia -- Cyclone Nargis, which left over 138,000 people dead or missing in Myanmar, and the Sichuan earthquake, which killed more than 87,000 people in China.

Damage from natural disasters cost more than $181 billion last year, according to the report.

More than three quarters of the disasters struck developing countries, which suffered 99 percent of the deaths, Maarten van Aalst, an author of the report, told a news conference.

“We also see a confirmation of the trend that we’ve seen in the past decade of a rise in weather-related disasters, which is concerning us and putting an additional strain on our operations,” van Aalst said.

“In the 1990s, we saw an average of about 200 natural weather-related disasters per year. In the past decade that’s been on average about 350. Last year we had 297, which is ... still well above what we’ve been used to in the past.”

Some experts have blamed the perceived rise in freak weather events on climate change caused by pollution. It is a controversial subject ahead of a conference in Copenhagen in December that is meant to impose tougher targets for greenhouse gas emissions.

“It is now highly likely that that extreme-weather events -- floods, droughts and storms -- will become more frequent and more severe. And we cannot say we have not been warned,” IFRC Secretary General Bekele Geleta said in a commentary.

“The disasters which climate change will trigger potentially threaten more lives and livelihoods than any before,” Geleta said, adding that the world’s response to the warning had so far been “piecemeal.”

Trygve Nordby, a deputy to Geleta, told the news conference he believed the Red Cross was succeeding in getting references to the humanitarian effects of climate change and the need for early action into the Copenhagen document.

“The hope is that the new climate change adaptation mechanism ... also will include mechanisms whereby this perspective of early warning, early action, disaster risk reduction preparedness also gets its fair share of those ... hopefully new resources,” he said.

Editing by Will Dunham