Rich and poor struggle to shoulder losses from devastating storms

Damaged homes along the foreshore of Sydney's Collaroy Beach, hit by powerful storms in early June. CREDIT Mitchell Harley/UNSW
Damaged homes along the foreshore of Sydney's Collaroy Beach, hit by powerful storms in early June. CREDIT - Mitchell Harley/UNSW

Caribbean islands – led by Puerto Rico – were worst-affected by weather disasters in 2017, index finds

By Megan Rowling and Sonia Elks

KATOWICE, Poland – (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The devastation caused by powerful storms is a growing threat to both poor and rich nations, propelling Caribbean islands to the top of a global index of countries most severely affected by weather disasters last year, researchers said on Tuesday.

The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico was ranked as the hardest-hit and the island of Dominica came in third place after both were battered by Hurricane Maria last September, according to an annual climate risk index from Germanwatch, an environmental policy group.

The United States ranked 12th in the 2017 index, with 389 fatalities and nearly $175 billion in losses from extreme weather.

“Recent storms with intensity levels never seen before have had disastrous impacts,” said the index’s lead author David Eckstein.

Such weather disasters are likely to worsen further in the coming years, the United Nations’ humanitarian agency warned on Tuesday, creating significant new humanitarian needs.

Floods, storms and droughts all are expected to strengthen, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in its “Global Humanitarian Overview 2019” report.

It cited World Bank data predicting 140 million people could be internally displaced by 2050 as a result of global warming.

Among the countries being significantly hit by climate-linked extreme weather is the United States, whose President Donald Trump is one of the most prominent skeptics of man-made climate change, the agency said.

Hurricanes and storms in the United States and the Caribbean caused more than $220 billion dollars worth of damage last year, representing nearly two-thirds of global losses caused by natural disasters in 2017, OCHA said.

“Climate events are contributing to greater humanitarian problems than we have seen in the past,” said Jens Laerke, a spokesman for OCHA. “This is something the world has not yet adapted fully to.”

As hurricanes and tropical cyclones intensify in strength, they are particularly hurting poor nations that are unprepared for the threat, researchers said on the sidelines of U.N. climate talks in Poland.

In the tiny island country of Dominica, Maria caused losses equal to more than twice its gross domestic product, damaging or destroying about 90 percent of housing.

Lloyd Pascal, a Dominican climate negotiator whose home has yet to be fully repaired after being hit by the storm, urged the U.N. talks to pay more attention to “weaker countries”.

Dominica, with 72,000 people, lacks the ability to prepare for the increasingly severe weather it is suffering, he said.

Even though storm warnings are received, the state does not have resources to evacuate people into shelters, he said, nor understand clearly how heavy rainfall will boost river levels.

“We are just not prepared to do that kind of work,” he told reporters. “We are like sitting ducks.”

But rich countries, including the United States, also are seeing clearer climate impacts, and need to step up efforts to keep their people safe, Germanwatch said.

“Effective climate protection, as well as increasing resilience, is… in the self-interest of these countries,” Eckstein said.


The Germanwatch index highlighted other types of weather-related damage as well, from unusually heavy rainfall to landslides.

Sri Lanka, the second most affected country in 2017, saw dramatic floods that year that killed 200 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

The U.N. climate negotiations should drum up more support for the poorest countries like Nepal, Vietnam, Sierra Leone and Madagascar to deal with rising losses linked to climate change, Germanwatch said.

All four of those countries figured in the index’s top 10 of nations most affected by weather disasters in 2017.

“They need predictable and reliable financial support for dealing with climate-induced loss and damage,” Eckstein said.

Five years ago, the U.N. climate talks set up a mechanism to better understand the damage that now will be unavoidable as a result of the 1 degree Celsius hike in global temperatures that has already occurred.

The mechanism also seeks to find ways to deal with the consequences as the world warms further.

But industrialized countries – which have historically emitted the most climate-changing emissions – have refused to pay compensation to those who are less to blame for global warming yet find themselves on the frontline of impacts.

Instead, they are providing access to insurance.

At the Dec. 2-14 talks in Poland, arguments are expected over how progress on dealing with “loss and damage” should be assessed in 2023 when countries measure up their climate action against the goals of the Paris climate accord.

(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling in Poland and Sonia Elks in London; editing by Laurie Goering. Credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights.)

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