At least 250 million people endured the effects of natural disasters last year - almost three times the amount of people in 1990 - prompting the head of the United Nations disaster-reduction body to warn this trend will worsen as more and more migrants move to high-risk urban areas because the economic opportunities are greater there.
Sálvano Briceño, Director of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), said migrants are increasingly willing to settle in large numbers in urban areas, even when they are situated on flooding plains, over seismic faults or on landslide-prone slopes, because so many rural areas lack basic services.
"People are becoming increasingly vulnerable because greater numbers are compelled to live in high-risk urban areas when looking for better economic opportunities," he said, citing the dearth of schools, health centres and other facilities in rural regions.
Many of the newly urbanized areas, especially in developing countries, are highly concentrated slums where the environment has become badly degraded. ISDR said that about 70 of the world's 100 largest cities are located in risk-prone regions, adding that if a major hazard struck one of those cities, "the potential for disasters could be huge."
A recent study by the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) has also projected that 2 billion people will be living in urban slums by as early as 2020, and more than 5 billion people will be living in cities, mostly in the developing world.
Mr. Briceño said that while the number of deaths from natural disasters has dropped sharply in recent years because the humanitarian response has generally become faster and more effective, the amount of people who are injured or lose their jobs or livelihood has surged.
"Disasters cannot be measured only in terms of fatal casualties…We won't ever stop natural hazards, but the world needs to find better ways to cope with disasters."
He called for development programmes that include land-use planning, better environmental management and greater public education should be created so that populations are less at risk.
Statistics released by Professor Debarati Guha Sapir, from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) at the University of Louvain in Belgium, show that at least 254 million people were affected by natural hazards last year. This compares to 90 million in 1990.
The UN will convene the World Conference on Disaster Reduction from 18 to 22 January in Kobe, Japan, 10 years after a devastating earthquake struck the city and surrounding areas, killing more than 5,000 people.