By Tom Mitchell

Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A year ago today, Typhoon Haiyan began its course to devastate the central Philippines. Since then, there has been a seemingly never-ending flow of stories about disasters from around the world and weird weather on our doorsteps. Do we really have a good grip on the true scale of disaster threats?

New research from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and its partners assesses the issues of global disaster threats with some surprising results. Here we debunk some common disaster myths.

Myth 1: Fewer people are dying in disasters

Fact: Over the last 30 years the total number of people dying in disasters globally has increased from an average of 65,000 in 1980 to 72,000 in 2013.

It’s difficult to be certain about long-term trends in disaster deaths, however, as just one or two deadly disasters can greatly affect the figures. The Southeast Asian tsunami in 2004 and the Haiti earthquake in 2010 both killed more than 200,000 people, which consequently pushed up average death tolls in the last decade.

Myth 2: Floods and storms are the most deadly hazards

Fact: Floods and storms are the most common hazards associated with disasters. Earthquakes are the most deadly.

Floods and storms have been involved in 70 percent of all recorded disaster events in the last 30 years, but they are associated with just 29 percent of the fatalities. Earthquakes - just 9 percent of the total recorded events - are linked to 38 percent of all disaster deaths. Droughts can be similarly deadly, making up just 5 percent of events, but 24 percent of deaths.

Myth 3: The very poorest countries experience the greatest number of deaths and damage to their economies.

Fact: 1.1 million people in middle-income countries have died in disasters since 1980 compared with 1 million people in low-income countries, including many of those in sub-Saharan Africa. The impact on the economies of middle-income countries is also higher - averaging 1 percent of gross domestic product compared with 0.3 percent in low-income countries (and 0.1 percent for high income countries).

Economic growth often involves more people and assets moving to places exposed to hazards. By a fate of geography, many middle-income countries also tend to be highly exposed to hazards. India, China, Thailand, Philippines and Mexico are all middle-income countries - and in the top 10 countries most exposed to natural hazards.

Myth 4: Disasters equally affect men and women

Fact: More women than men die in disasters. Discrimination often means that women suffer more of the longer-term impacts.

Differences in death rates between genders tend to be most extreme where women lack equal economic, social and political rights. In 2008, women accounted for six out of every 10 fatalities during Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, and close to eight out of every 10 fatalities in Ahmedabad, India, during the 2010 heat wave. Women also tend to suffer disproportionate impacts related to health, income and safety.

Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, women living in New Orleans were found to be 2.7 times more likely than men to have post-traumatic stress disorder. The ratio of women’s earnings to men’s in New Orleans declined from 81.6 percent before the hurricane to 61.8 percent in 2006. In Haiti, at least 242 cases of rape against women were recorded in relief camps in the first 150 days after the 2010 earthquake.

Myth 5: Climate change is now one of the biggest causes of disasters

Fact: The biggest cause of disasters is vulnerable people and infrastructure in areas exposed to extreme events.

In 2012, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that trends in human exposure to hazards and people’s vulnerability were the biggest cause of changing disaster impacts. It is extremely difficult scientifically to assess the exact role of climate change in influencing any individual disaster event, but the IPCC is clear that the effects of climate change on disasters are expected to increase from 2030 onwards.

Myth 6: Britain is the biggest supporter of humanitarian aid when disasters strike

Fact: The UK government and public are generous in their donations after major disaster events, but the United States is the biggest contributor in total. Britain is second.

Global humanitarian aid swelled to $22 billion in 2013, prompted by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and conflicts in Syria, South Sudan and elsewhere. Per capita, it is thought that the people of Luxembourg are the most charitable in their commitment to providing aid.

Myth 7: Nothing can be done to stop the ever-increasing number of disasters

Fact: With the right mix of investments, incentives and political leadership, a country can radically reduce its risk of disasters.

In the first half of the 20th century, flooding and typhoons killed significant numbers of people in Japan every year. In the 1950s, the death rate from typhoons in Japan was just over 1 per 100,000 people. Thanks to large-scale investment in defences, careful land-use planning and legislation, the death rate dropped to 0.08 per 100,000 from 1960 onwards.

Typhoon Haiyan devastated thousands of families in the Philippines, and the risk of disasters such as this is increasing in many regions. So what are we doing to reverse the trend? What needs to happen to ensure risk and suffering is minimised for those affected by natural disasters?

2015: A KEY YEAR

Over the next 18 months, there will be negotiation and hopefully agreement of major international policy frameworks, each with a key interest in reducing disaster risk and minimising disaster losses.

In March 2015, Japan will host the 3rd World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, where a new global commitment to tackle the threat of disasters around the world will be signed.

Later in 2015, governments and activists will meet in New York to agree new sustainable development goals. Then they will head to Paris to thrash out an agreement on climate change, with major consequences for the severity of future disasters if greenhouse gas emissions are not slashed quickly.

ODI and its partners are asking these key decision makers to work together on a combined approach to agreeing a set of targets and indicators that measure and monitor disaster risks. Only by doing this can we take effective global action.

To find out more about how we can achieve this global action, read the full report or summary from ODI, Risk Management Solutions and the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.

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