By Megan Rowling
BARCELONA, Jan 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Governments around the world are underestimating the costs of disasters, particularly smaller ones triggered by weather and climate extremes, which is undermining the case for efforts to reduce risk, the United Nations' new disaster prevention chief said.
Robert Glasser, who became head of the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) this month, warned that lower-level disasters - such as droughts and floods that hit provinces or regions rather than entire countries - are happening more often.
That is increasing the financial burden of helping those affected, putting a growing strain on an already over-stretched international aid system, he said in an interview.
"Not only are we falling short in being able to fund the big visible disasters, we're also falling short in meeting the ones that are below the radar screen, that still affect many tens of thousands of people," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Geneva.
In many cases, communities hit by dry spells or flash floods are less able to cope than in the past, due to wider problems of environmental degradation, he added.
The former secretary general of aid agency CARE International said a farmer he met several years ago in a part of Ethiopia that had suffered four droughts in less than a decade told him that, as a child, he recalled enduring only one similar drought.
Back then, his family survived by eating food they gathered in the forest - but now there was no forest left as it had been cut down.
The Horn of Africa country is facing yet another hunger crisis, with more than 10 million Ethiopians expected to need food aid this year amid a drought exacerbated by the current strong El Niño weather phenomenon.
Meteorologists have forecast that El Niño, linked to warmer-than-usual Pacific Ocean surface waters, will fizzle out in a few months but may be followed by a La Niña event. This cooling of the Pacific Ocean also brings extreme weather around the world.
"I feel confident that this issue (of disaster risk reduction) will only grow in importance on the agenda, because the problems are going to get worse," said Glasser.
A report released by UNISDR in November revealed that over the last 20 years, 90 percent of disasters were caused by floods, storms, heatwaves and other weather-related events.
Glasser predicted that the economic costs of disasters would rise as the impacts of climate change - which include more extreme weather and rising seas - increase.
In a flagship risk report, the United Nations said last year that the cost of disasters worldwide had reached an average of $250 billion to $300 billion every year.
But totals reported by big insurance firms tend to come in far below that, as they do not account for losses from repeated, smaller-scale disasters in poorer countries, experts say.
"One of the problems with disaster risk reduction is that even governments haven't quantified the costs of disasters, and unless they can put a price on it, if you talk to a finance ministry, they have competing priorities," Glasser said.
U.N. agencies and the World Bank can help governments develop tools to calculate the damage from disasters and understand risks better, so they can use that data to plan for smarter investments, from setting up early warning systems to avoiding building houses on flood plains, Glasser said.
According to the UNISDR, some 85 countries now have databases tracking disaster losses, a figure expected to rise to over 115 this year.
"There are big opportunities - even low-cost opportunities - to address disaster risk, if people recognise the importance of it," Glasser added.
The Australian development expert and ex-government official also highlighted the need for more work on protecting people from disasters in politically unstable places.
The distinction between complex emergencies, such as the conflict in Syria, and natural disasters "is blurring increasingly", he said. In Syria, a prolonged drought was blamed for pushing people into cities, inflaming tensions, he noted.
"I would expect with climate change that distinction is going to blur further, and we're going to see more incidents - whether it's... food insecurity riots that create instability, or refugees in Europe," he said.
To stop extreme weather escalating poverty and pressure on natural resources, disaster risk reduction "is going to be really important", he added, through measures such as providing insurance, social safety nets or resilient crops.
The key task for 2016, he said, is to translate last year's three global agreements - on reducing disaster risk, tackling climate change and setting Sustainable Development Goals - into action that helps people on the ground in places vulnerable to disaster.
Governments must start putting those U.N.-level decisions into practice, to ensure that both public and private-sector money is spent in a way that makes the world safer.
"Ultimately the objective is human beings that live in relative security from disasters and other threats," Glasser said.
(Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)