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Disaster lessons from the hottest year on record

Friday, 12 February 2016 10:01 GMT

A Malawian man carries food aid distributed by the World Food Progamme through maize fields in Mzumazi village near the capital Lilongwe, Feb. 3, 2016. Late rains in Malawi threaten the staple maize crop and have pushed prices to record highs. REUTERS/Mike Hutching

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

2015 was a remarkable year for droughts - and the effects will be felt well into 2016, particularly in Africa

Disasters don’t recognise borders or calendar years. Nonetheless one would expect to learn something of value to disaster risk reduction from newly available data on disasters in 2015 which was the hottest year on record since pre-industrial times.

For instance, the year 2015 was a remarkable year for droughts. There were 32 major droughts recorded in the EM-DAT database maintained by the Belgium-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.

This was more than double the 10-year average of 15. And these droughts occurred in a year when greenhouse gas levels reached record highs and the world experienced a very strong El Niño weather phenomenon.

In many ways, 2015 is not over. The carry-over effect will be felt well into 2016 as some 24 million people struggle with drought and food insecurity in the Horn of Africa and across southern Africa.

Here there are families who cannot sit down to even one decent meal a day or send their kids to school because their crops are withering in the fields.

Agricultural drought is back with a vengeance. If the El Niño is followed by its flipside, La Nina, as frequently happens, then it could mean a downturn in food production in other parts of the world which typically export their surpluses at affordable prices to where there is demand.

2015 could have a long after-life - but we have been warned by the data. More efforts are required to take practical steps such as improving water storage facilities, to support drought-exposed households in the future and reduce their vulnerability.

Last year was also noticeable for extreme weather variability and other portents of an uncertain future of more intense and unpredictable events, as we continue to adapt to life under a warming blanket of greenhouse gases.

There were record bouts of rain in both Pakistan and India during the year and there were also 3,500 deaths from heatwaves. The first-ever cyclone made landfall on conflict-torn Yemen.

Hurricane Patricia, the strongest storm ever to make landfall in the western hemisphere fortunately hit a sparsely populated part of Mexico. More than 600 people died in a landslide in Guatemala following heavy rains impacting on an unstable hillside.

This last disaster, along with the earthquake in Nepal which claimed 8,831 lives, underlines again how important it is to strengthen disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk. Good urban planning and compliance with building codes in potential disaster zones are essential to reducing disaster losses.


Understanding of disaster risk and investment in disaster preparedness and risk reduction have all played a key role in the encouraging news that there was a significant reduction in deaths from storms last year.

The El Niño meant a less active Atlantic hurricane season, but nonetheless there were 90 major storms worldwide compared to a 10-year average of 99. Over the last 21 years, storms have killed more than 242,000 people, making them the most deadly category of weather-related hazard.

Thanks to pre-emptive action and political leadership in several countries including India, the Philippines, Malawi and Mexico, the death toll from these storms was kept to a record low of 923 for the year, compared to the 10-year average of 9,525 deaths.

Flood deaths at 3,310 were also down on the 10-year average of 5,938. All of which points to the good sense of continued investment in early warning systems such as the CREWS (Climate Risk Early Warning System) initiative launched last year to boost those countries that only have rudimentary warning and forecasting systems in place.

The initiative was first announced by the French government at last year’s Third U.N. World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction and will go a long way towards helping meet the targets outlined in the 15-year blueprint for reducing risk and disaster losses, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.


The data released this week by CRED and UNISDR coincided with an important phase of the work in agreeing indicators that will aid countries in measuring progress in the achievement of the targets set out in the Sendai Framework - notably for substantial reductions in mortality, numbers of people affected, economic losses and damage to critical infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and public utilities.

Among the tasks at hand is to develop a common classification of types of hazards, ranging from meteorological events like storms to threats such as earthquakes, bio-hazards including disease outbreaks, as well as man-made disasters caused by industrial accidents.

Delegates attending the “Open-Ended Intergovernmental Expert Working Group on Indicators and Terminology Relating to Disaster Risk Reduction” this week have also been weighing up measures such as equations to measure economic losses in a range of sectors, and methods to ensure data is gathered consistently right down to the local level.

This work is vital. We know that 98.6 million people were affected in some way by major recorded disaster events last year and at least 22,773 people died. However, this is not the full picture and there are gaps in our knowledge particularly around small-scale recurring events.

For instance, economic loss data is skewed towards representing the impact on developed countries where the financial value of disaster losses is typically higher than in many least developed countries which might nonetheless lose an entire year’s GDP in one catastrophic event.

The compass guiding global efforts to manage disaster risk must be set according to accurate measures of disaster losses and their impact on the lives of the most vulnerable in our societies. More countries must be encouraged to establish and maintain national disaster loss databases if we are to continue to make progress in eradicating disasters as a driver of poverty.

Robert Glasser is head of the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction.