Extreme floods hit 500 million people a year

By Evelyn Leopold

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Homes and farmland drowned in increasingly severe floods are affecting some 500 million people a year and straining relief efforts, a senior U.N. official said on Thursday.

Deaths have been reduced because of early warning systems and other factors but the economic toll on a community’s housing, health and infrastructure still is devastating, said U.N. deputy humanitarian coordinator Margareta Wahlstrom.

“The great risk is that large numbers of people are living in the most vulnerable areas in the world,” Wahlstrom told a news conference, noting serious flooding was not restricted to South Asia, the heaviest hit, but had struck all continents.

Wahlstrom said that between 2004 and 2006, the number of natural disasters had increased from an average of 200 to 400 a year, including heat waves, droughts, wildfires and storms.

Floods increased from 60 to 100 per year in that time span and in 2007 some 70 serious floods have been registered, including in Sudan, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, China, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Colombia.

Changes in weather patterns were documented on Wednesday by the Geneva-based World Meteorological Organization, which noted natural disasters hit the poor hardest.

Heat waves were above average in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. And the Arabian sea near Oman had it first ever documented cyclone, WMO said.

These findings are in line with those of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N. umbrella group of experts, which had reported an increase in extreme weather events over the past 50 years and said these were likely to intensify.

“The challenge to countries, to organizations and to individuals is: can we change our behavior so that we reduce the impact of these events, knowing that, over the next 20 years, for sure, we will have more serious weather-related events?” Wahlstrom said.

But in many areas of the world people go back to where they came from, regardless of warnings of another disaster, having few alternatives.

In the Philippines, for example, five cyclones hit in 10 weeks and people returned to their homes, many of them fertile river deltas or coastal areas with seaports.

“But if a bridge keeps breaking down in the same river, and keeps being rebuilt, there is a responsibility of local authorities … who don’t ask themselves the right questions,” Wahlstrom said.

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