As Cyclone Mocha gathered strength in the Bay of Bengal in early May, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned of a “very dangerous” storm that could have “major impacts” for hundreds of thousands of the world’s most vulnerable people.
Authorities and aid agencies in Bangladesh and Myanmar evacuated about 400,000 coastal dwellers as fears grew that sprawling camps, home to Rohingya families displaced by conflict and military crackdowns, would suffer a direct hit.
While the arrival of yet another powerful cyclone surprised few in a fast-warming world, disaster experts highlighted the relatively low number of deaths - estimated at several hundred in worst-affected Myanmar and zero in Bangladesh.
WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said the storm had caused widespread devastation in both nations, affecting “the poorest of the poor” - but that in the past, they had suffered death tolls as high as hundreds of thousands from such cyclones.
“Thanks to early warnings and disaster management, these catastrophic mortality rates are now thankfully history. Early warnings save lives,” he added, as the WMO this week released new figures on the impacts of disasters since 1970.
Over the five decades, economic losses rocketed as extreme weather events were turbo-charged by global warming, with the 2010-2019 period accounting for nearly a third of total losses of US$4.3 trillion, largely due to a growth in damage from storms.
By contrast, the number of reported deaths per decade shrank from more than 556,000 in 1970-1979 to about 184,500 in the most recent decade, with a far smaller share attributed to storms.
We can definitely say that action has not caught up with awareness - and risk is ahead of us. If we don’t manage to prevent (disasters), we pay a very, very huge price in lives and livelihoods.
Mami Mizutori, head, UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction
According to the Global Commission on Adaptation, early warning systems - which give public information about extreme weather events before they hit and activate measures to keep people safe - can cut damage by 30 per cent with just 24 hours’ notice.