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Natural disaster refugees more than doubled to 42 million

About 42 million people were forced to flee their homes because of natural disasters around the world in 2010, more than double the number during the previous year, experts said Monday.
Image: a military helicopter flies over a flooded area in Fuzhou in China's Jiangxi province
The city of Fuzhou, in Jiangxi province, was among the areas of China that saw severe flooding last year. AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

About 42 million people were forced to flee their homes because of natural disasters around the world in 2010, more than double the number during the previous year, experts said Monday.

One reason for the increase in the figure could be climate change, and the international community should be doing more to contain it, the experts said.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre said the increase from 17 million displaced people in 2009 was mainly due to the impact of "mega-disasters" such as the massive floods in China and Pakistan and the earthquakes in Chile and Haiti.

The 2009 figure was low compared to 2008, when 36 million were displaced, but the group said that the overall number of disasters has doubled from around 200 to more than 400 a year over the past two decades.

It said more than 90 percent of the disaster displacements were caused by weather-related hazards such as floods and storms.

"The intensity and frequency of extreme weather events is increasing, and this trend is only set to continue. With all probability, the number of those affected and displaced will rise as human-induced climate change comes into full force," said Elisabeth Rasmusson, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Asia was the hardest hit region, with 32 million displaced. The largest numbers were in:

  • China (15 million), most from flooding;
  • Pakistan (11 million), from flooding.

Colombia saw the next largest amount, around 3 million, due to flooding there.

The report also looked at people affected by drought, estimating 108 million were impacted last year, compared with 101 million in 2009.

The monitoring center and refugee council presented the report at an international conference about climate change and displacement in Oslo.

Munich RE, a major player in the industry that insures insurance companies, earlier this year issued its own report that also cited that 90 percent of natural disasters in 2010 were weather-related. It estimated total economic losses at $130 billion.

The onslaught of natural disasters so far this year also has been grim.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan left more than 10,000 people dead, some 17,500 missing and about a half-million homeless.

In the United States, tornadoes have wreaked havoc from Alabama to Massachusetts, while floods have inundated states from Montana to Louisiana. In the southwest Missouri city of Joplin, the U.S.'s deadliest tornado in six decades killed at least 141 people and destroyed more than 8,000 homes in a city of about 50,000 people.

Speaking at the Oslo conference, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres called the issue of climate-related displacement "the defining challenge of our times" and criticized the international community for lacking the political will to reduce to pace of climate change.

"There is increasing evidence to suggest that natural disasters are growing in frequency and intensity and that this is linked to the longer-term process of climate change," Guterres said.

"This report provides us with evidence of the extent and urgency of the problem that we cannot ignore," added Rasmusson. "We must increase collaborative efforts to prevent displacement by natural disasters, and do a better job of protecting those displaced."