2010 was one of the worst years on record for natural disasters over the past two decades, leaving nearly 297,000 people dead, research for the United Nations shows.

The massive earthquake in Haiti a year ago accounted for about two thirds of the toll, killing more than 222,500 people, according to the Belgium-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED).

The CRED found that the summer heatwave in Russia was the second deadliest disaster of the year, leaving 55,736 people dead, according to figures it compiled from insurers and media reports of official sources.

The year was 'one of the worst in decades in terms of the number of people killed and in terms of economic losses,' Margareta Wahlstroem, UN special representative for disaster risk reduction, told journalists.

'These figures are bad, but could be seen as benign in years to come,' she said, pointing to the impact of unplanned growth of urban areas, environmental degradation and climate change.

The economic cost of the 373 major disasters recorded in 2010 reached $109bn (€80bn), headed by an estimated $30bn in damage caused by the powerful earthquake that struck Chile in February.

The earthquake unleashed a tsunami that swept away villages and claimed most of the 521 dead.

Summer floods and landslides in China caused an estimated $18bn in damage, while floods in Pakistan cost $9.5bn dollars, according to the CRED's annual study.

Although impoverished Haiti is still struggling to recover from the quake that devastated much of the capital, Port-au-Prince, it ranked lower down the global economic scale with an estimated $8bn in losses.

Asians accounted for 89% of the 207m people affected by disasters worldwide last year, the CRED said.