Cyclones, earthquakes and hurricanes around the world made 2008 one of the worst years for natural disasters so far this decade, the United Nations said Thursday.

At least 235,816 people were killed in 321 different disasters, some of the worst of which took place in Burma and China, according to the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.

"Almost the entire bulk of the deaths... is explained by only two events: Cyclone Nargis and the Sichuan [earthquake]," said Debarati Guha-Sapir of the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, which conducted the tally.

The UN estimates that nearly 84,000 people died and 54,000 went missing after Cyclone Nargis came crashing into Burma, also known as Myanmar, last May 3. About 2.5 million people were left destitute by the storm.

Less than two weeks later, nearly 70,000 people were killed when an earthquake rocked a swath of central and southern China. An estimated five million people were rendered homeless.

Last year's natural disaster death toll was more than three times the annual average between 2000 and 2007, which was 66,812. The only other year the death toll was higher was in 2004, when it reached 241,647 because of the Indian Ocean tsunami.

"The share of floods and storms are increasing substantially [and] steadily" compared with the number of earthquakes, droughts and other natural catastrophes, Guha-Sapir said.

The 2008 Atlantic hurricane season produced a record number of consecutive storms that struck the United States and ranked as one of the more active seasons in the 64 years since comprehensive records started to be kept, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The world's disasters last year caused estimated damage of $227 billion, some 60 per cent of it — or $136 billion — in China.   

Hurricane Ike, which hit the Caribbean and the southern United States in September, also substantially contributed to the cost with an estimated $30 billion in damage, the UN agency said.

Salvano Briceno, director of the UN's disaster reduction agency, said the high amount of economic loss was alarming.

"Sadly, 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.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that global warming will increase the number of extreme weather events and cause more natural disasters.

As well, more and more people living in urban areas contributes to the death toll when a natural disaster occurs, Briceno said, while environmental degradation and poverty — which leave poor communities more vulnerable to natural disasters than better-protected, wealthier ones — also exacerbate the problem.

With files from the Associated Press