People move from their homes to take shelter in the nearest cyclone shelter at Shah Porir Dwip during the landfall of cyclone Mocha in Teknaf, Bangladesh, 14 May 2023.

As Cyclone Mocha gathered strength in the Bay of Bengal in early May, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned of a "very dangerous" storm that could have "major impacts" for hundreds of thousands of the world's most vulnerable people.

Authorities and aid agencies in Bangladesh and Myanmar evacuated about 400,000 coastal dwellers as fears grew that sprawling camps, home to Rohingya families displaced by conflict and military crackdowns, would suffer a direct hit.

While the arrival of yet another powerful cyclone surprised few in a fast-warming world, disaster experts highlighted the relatively low number of deaths - estimated at several hundred in worst-affected Myanmar and zero in Bangladesh.

WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said the storm had caused widespread devastation in both nations, affecting "the poorest of the poor" - but that in the past, they had suffered death tolls as high as hundreds of thousands from such cyclones.

"Thanks to early warnings and disaster management, these catastrophic mortality rates are now thankfully history. Early warnings save lives," he added, as the WMO this week released new figures on the impacts of disasters since 1970.

Over the five decades, economic losses rocketed as extreme weather events were turbo-charged by global warming, with the 2010-2019 period accounting for nearly a third of total losses of $4.3 trillion, largely due to a growth in damage from storms.

By contrast, the number of reported deaths per decade shrank from more than 556,000 in 1970-1979 to about 184,500 in the most recent decade, with a far smaller share attributed to storms.

According to the Global Commission on Adaptation, early warning systems - which give public information about extreme weather events before they hit and activate measures to keep people safe - can cut damage by 30 per cent with just 24 hours' notice.

The WMO says such systems save lives and provide at least a tenfold return on investment - but only half of countries have put them in place so far, with coverage especially low in small island developing states, least developed nations and Africa.

Early warning for all

The UN chief has announced a goal of ensuring everyone on earth is protected by early warning systems by the end of 2027, through an initiative being implemented by UN agencies, development banks, governments and national weather services.

The programme is seeking new investments of about $3 billion - a sum the WMO says would be dwarfed by the benefits.

Mami Mizutori, head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), said the rollout of early warning systems around the world so far had been key in lowering mortality from disasters this century - a rare success as threats spiral.

A mid-point review of goals set in 2015 under a global pact to avert disasters by 2030 said "progress has stalled and, in some cases, reversed", despite more countries creating disaster loss databases and adopting national risk reduction strategies.

"We can definitely say that action has not caught up with awareness - and risk is ahead of us," Mizutori said in an interview during a UN meeting on the global pact, called the Sendai Framework, in New York last week.

"If we don't manage to prevent (disasters), we pay a very, very huge price in lives and livelihoods," she added.

Limited funding

The review of the targets adopted in Sendai, Japan, revealed the number of people affected by disasters each year - through harm to their health, homes and incomes - has fallen since 2015.

But, it noted, economic losses caused by disasters remained high at an average of above $330 billion per year between 2015 and 2021 - or 1 per cent of gross domestic product of the reporting countries - an amount estimated to be significantly undervalued.

The WMO's new analysis of weather, climate and water-related disasters pointed out that more than 60 per cent of economic losses over the past five decades occurred in developed countries, yet the poorest nations and island states took a much bigger blow in terms of the share of their GDP.

In many cases, such as Cyclone Mocha, losses are uninsured and barely register in terms of dollar value - but can be devastating for people who have almost nothing to fall back on.

For example, those most affected by the recent storm in Bangladesh were Rohingya people displaced by successive waves of political violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state and who now live in crowded conditions in camps in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh.

Aid assessments showed the cyclone wrecked more than 8,000 flimsy bamboo huts there - about one-fifth of shanty homes.

The shelters cannot withstand even modest wind speeds, said Ashish Damle, country head for aid group Oxfam International - adding that if a cyclone were to hit directly, the bamboo huts would be blown about, resulting in "terrible fatalities".

"(Mocha) was more like a teaser for Bangladesh that reminds us that we need to be prepared for future events," Damle said.

Globally, a major obstacle to building more robust homes and infrastructure such as disaster-resilient power lines and transport is a lack of financing, governments and experts say.

In a political declaration issued in New York last week, countries expressed concern that investments in disaster risk reduction and development aid allocated to prevention remain inadequate, and vowed to do more to fill the gap.

One idea backed by UNDRR is to work with the private sector to issue "resilience bonds" whose proceeds could be used by countries or cities to bolster infrastructure and ecosystems that can help protect against flooding, storms or drought.

'Build back better'

Aid agencies argue that, with budgets stretched, it makes more economic sense to invest in reducing risks for vulnerable communities than helping them rebuild after weather disasters.

Yet despite the reasoning - with $1 spent on risk reduction and prevention estimated to save up to $15 in post-disaster recovery, according to UNDRR - the money is still not flowing in anything like the quantities needed.

Only about 5 per cent of disaster-related foreign aid was spent on prevention and preparedness from 2011-2020, UNDRR data shows.

"That continues to be a real bottleneck in terms of progress generally - and it's part of a wider political lack of attention to preparedness versus response," said Sophie Rigg, head of climate and humanitarian policy for charity ActionAid UK.

One solution is to "build back better" when recovering from a disaster, so individuals and communities are less vulnerable to future climate change impacts, said Rigg, who is also a board member for the Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction.

To reinforce this approach, recent progress on incorporating disaster prevention into the UN climate negotiations could open up expected new streams of finance for tackling loss and damage caused by climate change, she and other experts said.

Meanwhile on the ground, struggling communities could benefit from innovative approaches to help them access funding.

For example, Gawher Nayeem Wahra, founder and secretary of the Disaster Forum in Bangladesh, said microfinance institutions could be used to disburse small sums of resilience aid for rural cyclone survivors to rebuild homes and restart their lives.

And on a longer-term basis, low-cost loans could be offered for private two-storey homes on the condition that their owners allow them to be used by evacuees from cyclones and flooding, easing pressure on crowded public shelters, he added.

Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy for Climate Action Network International, said governments, aid agencies and others who have worked separately on disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation should unite "towards a common goal".

"We need to work very closely to make sure that we have the best interests of people in whatever we do, because they are suffering and they need our urgent support," he said.