By Laura MacInnis
GENEVA, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Natural disasters caused nearly $110 billion of damage in China last year, a warning to other emerging economies ill-prepared for potential hazards, the United Nations said on Thursday.
A May earthquake in Sichuan and extreme weather made China the most disaster-affected country in economic terms in 2008, said the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR).
The U.N. body said the world economy suffered a $181 billion blow from naturally-occurring events such as floods, storms, volcanic eruptions, wildfires and droughts in 2008.
Much of the devastation was avoidable, said ISDR Director Salvano Briceno.
"These losses could have been substantially reduced if buildings in China, particularly schools and hospitals, had been built to be more earthquake-resilient," he said. "An effective early warning system with good community preparedness could have also saved many lives in Myanmar."
Though disasters were less frequent than in past years, the Sichuan quake and Cyclone Nargis that hit Myanmar in May made 2008 the most deadly since 2004, when an Indian Ocean tsunami devastated Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.
A total of 235,816 people were killed by disasters in 2008, compared with 16,871 the year before, the ISDR said. The costs were more than double the 2007 economic damages of $75 billion.
China also had the highest number of disasters, with 26 recorded. The Philippines was next with 20, followed by the United States with 19, Indonesia with 16, and Vietnam and India with 10 each.
Some 98.85 percent of deaths from natural disasters in 2008 occurred in Asia. Haiti, where more than 500 people were killed in Hurricane Hanna, was the only non-Asian country to have suffered one of the 10 most deadly natural disasters.
Debarati Guha-Sapir, director of the Brussels-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, which compiled the data released by the ISDR, said China’s costs should serve as a lesson to India, Iran, Vietnam, Turkey, and other middle-income nations which are building infrastructure rapidly.
"These countries are likely to suffer from increasing natural disaster losses," she told a news conference.
"They are expanding like mad ... This is the time when they can build into their structural plans and regulations the prevention measures they need."
The United Nations and its aid partners have been investing since the 2004 tsunami in emergency preparedness plans to help disaster-prone countries avoid devastation.
These include a range of activities including construction guidelines, evacuation plans, and early-warning systems to alert people to risks from droughts, floods, and tidal waves.
The number of people affected by natural disasters worldwide remained stable from 2007 to 2008 at around 211 million. (Editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Elizabeth Piper) (For more information on disasters and emergency relief, see www.alertnet.org)