Richer nations hit hard by disasters in 2011
They included floods in Brazil, an earthquake in New Zealand, the massive Japan quake and tsunami in March, severe storms and tornadoes in the United States, floods in Thailand, an earthquake in Turkey and a tropical storm in the Philippines.
"It was notable last year that many of the disasters were in high and in middle-income countries which have the resources for better disaster prevention," said Debby Guha-Sapir, director of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) at the Belgian University of Louvain, which collates the data.
The huge economic losses from the Japan disaster ($210 billion) pushed the 2011 total up to $366 billion, much higher than in the last record year of 2005, when they reached $243 billion.
CRED and the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) said the long-term disasters trend had been bucked by major earthquakes for two consecutive years, including the devastating 2010 quake in Haiti - a lesson that seismic threats should not be ignored.
"The many major cities located in seismic zones need to take seriously the probability of return events even if many years have passed since the last seismic event of major magnitude," UNISDR chief Margareta Wahlström said in a statement.
"Unless we prepare for the worst, then many earthquake-prone urban areas around the world are destined to see even greater loss of life in the future as more and more people move to cities," she added.
MORE DROUGHT DATA NEEDED
The 2011 figures show that 20,943 people lost their lives in earthquakes last year - including 19,846 who died in Japan - out of a total of 29,782 people directly killed by 302 disasters.
The number of disasters was lower than the 2001-2010 annual average of 384, and death tolls from storms and extreme temperatures were far fewer in 2011 than the previous decade's average.
The Philippines suffered the highest number of reported natural disasters in 2011 with 33, followed by China with 21, and the United States with 19.
Overall, 206 million people were affected by disaster events last year, with some 106 million people hit by floods and 34 million by storms. Drought impacted on 60 million people, mainly in China and the Horn of Africa, where failed rains have caused a widespread hunger crisis.
"Droughts and famines are rarely spectacular events, but they end up causing massive deaths which go uncounted," said CRED's Guha-Sapir. "As droughts are set to rise in sub-Saharan Africa, they will continue to devastate large populations. In this context, reliable statistics and data should be a priority for better and more timely preventive action."
In 2011, more than 45 percent of disasters occurred in Asia. The continent was also home to more than 85 percent of those killed and those affected globally, and 75 percent of economic damages.
Europe, by contrast, experienced very few disasters and impacts in 2011, with the lowest numbers killed, numbers affected and economic damages since 1990.