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Disasters escalating four-fold as climate change hits poor hardest

Weather-related disasters have quadrupled over the last two decades, from an average of 120 a year in the early 1980s to as many as 500 today, says international agency Oxfam in a new report today. The report, titled Climate Alarm: Disasters increase as climate change bites, details how the increase in these extreme climatic events is in line with climate models developed by the international scientific community.

The number of people affected by all disasters has risen from an average of 174 million a year between 1985 and 1994 to 254 million a year between 1995 and 2004. Earlier this year the Asian floods alone affected 248 million people.

There has been a six-fold increase in floods since 1980. The number of floods and wind-storms has risen from 60 in 1980 to 240 last year. Meanwhile the number of geothermal events, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, has stayed relatively static.

"The cyclones in Bangladesh and Papua New Guinea last week are not freak occurrences. This year we have also seen floods in South Asia, across the breadth of Africa and in Mexico that have affected more than 250 million people. It follows a trend of more frequent, more erratic, more unpredictable and more extreme weather events that are affecting more people," said Barry Coates, Executive Director of Oxfam New Zealand. "Action is needed now to prepare for more disasters otherwise humanitarian assistance will be overwhelmed and recent advances in human development will go into reverse."

Though the colossal crises such as the African famines of the early 1980s, the Bangladesh cyclone of 1991 and the Asian tsunami cause an enormous loss of life, the new worrying trend is the increase in small to medium-sized disasters. The death toll caused by these disasters has risen from an average of 6,000 in 1980 to 14,000 in 2005.

One disaster after another, even if relatively small, can push poor people and communities into a downward spiral from which it is difficult to recover. To make matters worse, rich countries tend to prioritise their aid spending into the more high-profile emergencies and to those countries that are seen as in line with their foreign policy priorities.

Some countries are particularly prone to weather-related disasters. In August 2007 Vietnam's central provinces were hit by Typhoon Pabuk which caused extensive flooding and in October the same area was hit by landslides and floods in another typhoon.

Vietnam is also likely to be hardest hit of all by rising sea levels according to World Bank research. Meanwhile drought there is also becoming more common. Oxfam's new research in Ninh Thuan province shows how, during droughts, women suffer most, having to walk long distances to fetch water in extreme temperatures.

For poor people who are dependent upon the land, according to the report, even a slight change in the climate can have a long term impact on their livelihoods. A woman farmer from Tajikistan, Umeda Ddinaeva, told Oxfam: "Locusts attacked our fields and our entire crop has disappeared. I have noticed that when the temperature is above 34 degrees, when it is much hotter than usual, there is more chance that locusts will come."

To deal with the symptoms of weather related disasters, Oxfam is calling on rich country governments and the UN to make humanitarian aid faster, fairer and more flexible and to improve ways to prepare for and reduce the risk of disasters.

Oxfam says that rising greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change which is triggering an increase in weather-related disasters and must be tackled. Oxfam is calling on governments meeting at the UN Conference on Climate Change in Bali next month to agree a mandate to negotiate a global deal that will provide assistance to developing countries to cope with the impacts of climate change and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with rich countries moving first and fastest since they are most responsible for climate change.

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