msnbc.com news services
updated 8/10/2007 3:48:00 PM ET 2007-08-10T19:48:00

Serious flooding affects 500 million people every year and has become a major problem not just in Asian countries with annual monsoons and typhoons but in countries such as Sudan, Colombia, Ethiopia and Afghanistan, a senior U.N. official said Thursday.

Assistant Secretary-General Margareta Wahlstrom, the U.N. deputy emergency relief coordinator, said floods and weather-related disasters accounted for 59 percent of all reported disasters last year.

Between 2004 and 2006 there was an increase from 200 to 400 emergencies, with the number of floods increasing from 60 to more than 100, Wahlstrom said. This year, there have been about 70 floods up to August, she said.

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 the 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.

Wahlstrom said scientists have been warning humanitarian workers to "keep doing what you're doing, be prepared for more and extreme (weather events), but not only in the places where you're used to responding to disasters."

The U.N. cited as examples of the unexpected the July heat wave in Europe, the cyclone in Oman in June, and floods this summer in Sudan, Ethiopia, Myanmar, South Asia, Afghanistan and Colombia.

Wahlstrom praised the huge investments in countries historically affected by floods and other weather events in preparing for disasters and instituting early warning systems, which has meant there have been limited deaths despite tens of millions of people being affected.

But she said "the great risk is that large numbers of people are living in the most vulnerable areas of the world," including fertile delta areas and along coastlines.

"So the challenge to countries, organizations, and 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 asked.

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 Wahlstrom.

According to the U.N., last year 83 percent of disaster victims lived in Asia, and disasters caused more than $25 billion in economic damage in Asia. That compares with $34.5 billion in economic damage from the more than 400 reported natural disasters in 2006, the U.N. said.

And 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.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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