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Before Doha Conference on Climate Change: Natural disasters made history in 2011

28 November 2012

JOHANNESBURG, 27 November 2012 (IRIN) - Many of the worst natural disasters of 2011 were also the most severe the affected countries had ever experienced, revealed the Global Climate Risk Index (CRI) 2013, which was released in Doha on 27 November.

Brazil, Cambodia, El Salvador,Laos and Thailand appear in the CRI’s 10 most-affected countries; all recorded their severest natural hazards-related catastrophes in 2011.

Floods and landslides claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people and caused almost US$5 billion in direct losses in Brazil, said the index, which is produced by the NGO Germanwatch.

Thailand is listed as 2011’s most natural disaster-affected country. The country experienced its worst flooding ever that year, triggered by the landfall of Tropical Storm Nock-ten. The flooding led to losses worth $43 billion, making it one of the most costly natural disasters of the world.

El Salvador, the smallest country in Central America, appears frequently on the annual index. In 2011, extensive floods and landslides caused damages worth over $1 billion.


In Cambodia, severe rainfalls resulted in the worst flooding in decades, killing about 250 people and destroying houses and rice crops. Its neighbour Laos also experienced heavy flooding in 10 of the country’s 17 provinces; over 300,000 people were affected.

Connection to climate change

“We see that there are an increasing number of cases where science is saying, ‘Oh these big events have likely not happened without climate change’. It is getting more visible in the disasters,” said Sven Harmeling, the lead on climate change policy at Germanwatch. “We must expect that this will become more so in the future, that countries will experience extreme events of a strength they have never seen before.”

Because climate is the average of many weather events occurring over a span of years, one-off events cannot be directly linked to climate change. But studies do indicate that the increased occurrence of extreme climate events could likely result from climate change. Researchers from the University of Oxford and the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research showed that the rise of manmade greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has at least doubled the risk of a heatwave exceeding the record-shattering heatwave that stuck Europe in 2003.

Changes in extreme natural events have been observed since 1950, noted the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2012 special report Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX). The frequency and intensity of rainfall, drought and warm spells have likely increased in some places, the report said.

The 2013 CRI lists a selection of the record-breaking natural disasters that have occurred since 2000, including Europe’s 2003 heatwave - the hottest summer in 500 years. Other events include: the wettest autumn in England and Wales since 1766, recorded in 2000; the hottest summer in Greece since 1891, recorded in 2007; the hottest summer in western Russia since 1500, occurring in 2010; and the worst flooding in Pakistan’s history, occurring in 2010.

Economic impact

The UN climate change talks in Doha also follow the deadly impact of Hurricane Sandy - one of the greatest disasters in US history. The storm caused economic losses of about $50 billion, notes the CRI.

But the US saw an even more severe disaster in 2012, one that had far-reaching impacts on global food security. Popular climatologist Jeff Masters wrote on his blog that “shockingly, Sandy is probably not even the deadliest or most expensive weather disaster this year in the United States - Sandy's damages of perhaps $50 billion will likely be overshadowed by the huge costs of the great drought of 2012… While it will be several months before the costs of America's worst drought since 1954 are known, the 2012 drought is expected to cut America's GDP by 0.5 to 1 percentage points.”

With these massive economic impacts, the controversial matter of losses and damages caused by climate change will be granted “increasing weight” at the negotiations, says the CRI.

From 1970 to 2008, more than 95 percent of disaster-related deaths occurred in developing countries, the SREX report said. “Middle-income countries with rapidly expanding asset bases have borne the largest burden. During the period from 2001 to 2006, losses amounted to about one percent of the GDP for middle-income countries. In small, exposed countries, particularly small island developing states, losses expressed as a percentage of GDP have been particularly high, exceeding 1 percent in many cases and 8 percent in the most extreme cases, averaged over both disaster and non-disaster years for the period from 1970 to 2010.”

Harmeling surmised that countries participating in the Doha climate meeting “could decide to start building a strategic, comprehensive approach to dealing with loss and damage, which could be in the form of an international mechanism. Much of it will [focus on] adaptation, but there will also be the need to increase work on rehabilitation and multi-national insurance schemes.

“Doha is an important moment here to show the world that the most vulnerable are not left behind with the unavoidable consequences [of climate change].”

Report Global Climate Risk Index (CRI) 2013 here