|GENEVA - The Indian Ocean tsunami has caused the annual death toll from natural disasters to soar to 320,000 worldwide, more than four times the toll from the previous year, a research institute said on Thursday.|
Natural disasters also caused an estimated $88 billion in damage last year, but affected far fewer people, the Centre for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) said.
An earthquake and killer waves, which struck 12 Indian Ocean countries on December 26, took the lives of some 304,200 people, with the most victims in Indonesia, according to the group, part of the Catholic University in Louvain, Brussels.
"Without the tsunami, a dramatically exceptional event, the general trend which shows a decrease in the number of deaths would have been confirmed," said Debarati Guha-Sapir, CRED director.
"It sounds odd, but 2004 was actually a very good year because in fact it probably had the least number of natural disasters in the last five to 10 years," she told a briefing.
In all, 139 million people were affected by 366 disasters in 2004, ranging from major floods in Bangladesh and China, to drought in South Africa, and hurricanes in the United States.
The annual death toll rose from 78,422 in 2003, when 254 million people were affected by disasters, it said.
Apart from the deadly tsunami, the highest toll was in Haiti, where Hurricane Jeanne and floods took 5,419 lives last year, according to CRED. Another 1,195 died in floods in India.
Floods affected the most people -- 33 million people each in China and Bangladesh alone -- while windstorms (cyclones, hurricanes and tornadoes) caused the most property damage.
"The bulk of the $88 billion damage comes from Japan and the United States," Guha-Sapir said, noting high property values there. An earthquake struck the Niigata region in northern Japan in October while several hurricanes swept the United States.
The centre's sources range from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies -- the world's largest disaster relief network ---- to insurance companies including Lloyds, Munich Re and Swiss Re.
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE