U.N. Disaster Chief Warns of More Natural Catastrophes to Come



GENEVA — Thailand’s Khao Lak coast 10 years ago was a wasteland of palm beaches littered with the detritus of destroyed hotels and corpses blackened by the tropical sun.

Margareta Wahlstrom, the United Nations’ top official on natural disasters, will be in Khao Lak on Friday for the anniversary of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami with a message: “Expect events to happen that you have never seen before. There will be no letup in the coming decades.”

Spurred partly by the tsunami, which the United Nations says killed more than 227,000 people, many countries have built early warning systems and other defenses against natural disasters, said Ms. Wahlstrom, the head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.

The perception among some developed countries that disasters mostly afflict poor countries has changed since Hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and Sandy in 2012, earthquakes in Italy, repeated heavy flooding in Central Europe and wildfires in the United States and Russia. “Everywhere, things are going on that didn’t go on 10 years ago,” Ms. Wahlstrom said.

While disaster responses have helped to reduce mortality from such events, their frequency and cost are spiraling up. “Events that we used to say happen once in a hundred years are happening every 20 years and soon maybe every 10 years,” Ms. Wahlstrom said.

Between 1970 and 2012, nearly two million people died in 8,835 disasters, according to a “mortality atlas” the United Nations produced this year, estimating the economic losses at $2.4 trillion. Although data is still imprecise, Ms. Wahlstrom said the United Nations and business accepted that natural disasters cost the global economy about $250 billion a year, probably much more.

Moreover, those estimates do not take into account the long-term and indirect costs of disasters in the form of ruined businesses, unemployment, homelessness and health costs.

Much of the work of the last decade has drawn on disaster risk measures established in the Hyogo Framework for Action, agreed to at a world conference held in the months after the Indian Ocean tsunami. The anniversary comes as the United Nations is preparing another world conference in March in Sendai, Japan, which was ravaged by the March 2011 tsunami.

The Sendai conference is intended, Ms. Wahlstrom said, to give new urgency to identifying risk of disasters, setting new priorities for managing them and putting greater emphasis on preparing for “the most difficult part of any disaster,” reconstruction.

“Many disaster experts say the biggest risk is when we forget,” she said. “That’s when our defenses go down.”