Natural Disasters

Loss & damage: 85% of costliest climate-linked disasters in 2023 were floods & storms; mostly affected poor

Recovery cost of Cyclone Freddy in Malawi was around 5.2% of its economy, highest among 20 most expensive global disasters in 2023

By Kiran Pandey
Published: Friday 05 January 2024

The aftermath of Cyclone Freddy. Photo: @UN / X
  The aftermath of Cyclone Freddy. Photo: @UN / X

Floods and storms (hydrological and meteorological disasters) accounted for 85 per cent of the world’s top 20 most expensive disasters (17) linked to climate change in 2023, according to non-profit Christian Aid.

Extreme disasters spared no region across the world in 2023 and were more intense too. The 20 disasters analysed by the report occurred in 14 countries spread across six continents (excluding Antarctica).

They were made worse by climate change, according to Counting the Cost 2023: a year of climate breakdown. The disasters ranged from wildfires, drought (climatological disasters) to floods and storms (hydrological and meteorological disasters).

The researchers calculated the economic costs of disasters per capita. They noted the glaring inequality in how extreme weather disasters impacted rich and poor countries.

Higher-income countries were likely to have greater per capita costs of disasters, including floods, because they have stronger infrastructure, higher living standards, and more comprehensive insurance coverage, the report noted.

In fact, the wide gaps in insurance of climate-related disasters were evident from an analysis of the annual insured losses published in the upcoming State of India’s Environment Report 2024.

For instance, 74 per cent of economic losses in the United States (worth $76.4 billion) were insured. Compare this with the Asia-Pacific region, where just 13 per cent of economic losses ($22.2 billion) were insured.

Unequal recovery

The time taken and costs incurred to recover from such disasters is highly unequal across the world, flagged the report.

People in richer countries will be able to recover much faster than their poorer counterparts (lower- or middle-income nations). In contrast, recovery will be slower among the poor, with many people pushed further into poverty as assets are destroyed or damaged.

“When it comes to the climate crisis, there is a global postcode lottery that is stacked against the poor. In poorer countries, people are often less prepared for climate-related disasters and have fewer resources with which to bounce back. More people die, and recovery is slower and more unequal. There is a double injustice in the fact that the communities worst affected by global warming have contributed little to the problem,” chief executive of Christian Aid, Patrick Watt, said in a statement.

The report also noted that disasters, especially floods and storms that affect a greater number of people, typically occur in lower- or middle-income countries.

Of the 14 countries listed in the analysis, Malawi is a low-income country. Vanuatu, Myanmar and Haiti are lower-middle income countries.

Over two million Malawians (10 per cent its population) were affected by Cyclone Freddy in 2023. This was Africa’s second-deadliest cyclone this century after Cyclone Idai in 2019 and the longest-lasting tropical cyclone ever recorded, lasting 34 days.

Cyclone Freddy in Malawi cost about $17 per person. A full recovery would cost $680 million, according to the Post Disaster Needs Assessment by the government.

This represents a somewhat bigger share, or around 5.2 per cent of a nation’s economy ($13,000 million), compared to the other 19 disasters included in the analysis.

Given that the average annual income in Malawi is less than $500 million, the per capita expense of $33 to cover recovery costs amounts to more than five per cent of already very low incomes, the report stated.

The people of Malawi continue to bear a sizable amount of the financial burden for reconstruction and recovery following Cyclone Freddy even after the delivery of international aid.

This is unfair since the southern African country accounts for just 0.04 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But it is paying for the GHG emissions of a small number of countries which include the United States, historically the biggest sources of GHG emissions.

Floods in Libya due to Storm Daniel killed at least 11,000 people and affected at least a million people. While the economic cost has been hard to quantify, at about $105 per person, this has been the seventh-most expensive disaster.  

The economic costs of floods in Libya have been underestimated, according to the analysis. The average recovery cost of just over $80 per person directly affected is too less than the real cost required to recover in the country, which belongs to upper higher-income nations group.

Floods, storms vs other disasters

Wildfires in the US state of Hawaii were 2023’s most expensive disaster, with losses and damages estimated to be around $4,000 per person. Storms in May 2023 in the US overseas territory of Guam, which cost about $1,500 per person, were the second-most expensive disaster, according to the report.

At around $947 per person, the two Category-4 tropical cyclones — Judy and Kevin — that struck Vanuatu at the beginning of March 2023, ranked as the third most expensive disasters of 2023. Vanuatu is considered as ‘most vulnerable’ to natural disasters according to the World Bank.

Judy and Kevin accounted for almost a third of the average GDP per capita of Vanuatu, which is slightly over $3,000.

The high prevalence of such storms is likely to increase due to climate change, according to studies. It is likely that the global proportion of major (Categories 3-5) tropical cyclone occurrence has increased over the last four decades because of climate change, stated the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Human-induced climate change is intensifying the occurrence of heavy precipitation linked to tropical cyclones, said the IPCC in its sixth assessment report.

The Christian Aid report underscored the significance of adaptation and preparedness, which includes investment in early warning systems. For example, the loss of lives due to floods linked to Daniel, a rare medicane — a tropical cyclonic storm in the Mediterranean region — could have been avoided if Libya was made less vulnerable to such extreme weather events through adaptation measures such as early warning systems.

On behalf of the affected poor and the vulnerable countries, it stressed upon the need to mobilise funds for addressing adaptation and mitigating loss and damage.

Further, when the Loss and Damage Fund is being operationalised in 2024, governance of the Fund will be a critical test of global solidarity and effectiveness, said the report.

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