By Laura MacInnis
GENEVA, March 12 (Reuters) - Much like over-exposed banks, many countries have ignored big risks from natural hazards and must now take urgent steps to protect people from disasters, a United Nations official said on Thursday.
Margareta Wahlstrom, U.N. assistant secretary-general for disaster risk reduction, said that governments should encourage "more wise behaviour" among millions of people who live in areas vulnerable to earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and fires.
"We would like to see a lot more engagement, and we need to communicate better," she told reporters in Geneva, where the U.N. manages much of its aid and emergency response work.
The December 2004 tsunami, which killed as many as 230,000 people in Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and the Maldives, served as a wake-up call for the aid community about the need to prepare for the worst impacts of natural disasters.
Despite continued appeals from U.N. agencies and their aid partners, Wahlstrom said there were many vulnerable areas across the globe, from downtown New York to rural Bangladesh.
The Swedish national said environmental and ecological risks were now accumulating in a similar way as were the financial, economic and political ones that made global headlines in the past year.
Three-quarters of the world’s population lives in areas that experienced at least one earthquake, tropical cyclone, flood, or drought since 1980, according to the U.N. Development Programme.
The International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), a U.N. agency based in Geneva, estimates that natural disasters cost the global economy $181 billion last year. Most of those damages -- nearly $110 billion worth -- were in China.
To prevent huge costs, and to save lives, the ISDR says people in coastal areas must be better educated about how to survive tsunamis and big storms, and governments should allocate land and permit construction in a hazard-conscious way.
The World Bank will later this year publish an estimate of the economic benefits of disaster preparedness, a measure that Wahlstrom said should make it easier for political leaders to prioritise the life-saving steps that are otherwise overlooked.
She stressed while such measures would not stop disasters from happening, they could avert much of their devastation. "The job is to reduce the impact of disasters," she said.
(Editing by Richard Balmforth)