With the wide acceptance of forest-protection policies in the developing world comes a requirement for clear demonstrations of how deforestation may erode human well-being and economies. For centuries, it has been believed that forests provide protection against flooding. However, such claims have given rise to a heated polemic, and broad-scale quantitative evidence of the possible role of forests in flood protection has not been forthcoming. Using data collected from 1990 to 2000 from 56 developing countries, we show using generalized linear and mixed-effects models contrasted with information-theoretic measures of parsimony that flood frequency is negatively correlated with the amount of remaining natural forest and positively correlated with natural forest area loss (after controlling for rainfall, slope and degraded landscape area). The most parsimonious models accounted for over 65 % of the variation in flood frequency, of which nearly 14 % was due to forest cover variables alone. During the decade investigated, nearly 100,000 people were killed and 320 million people were displaced by floods, with total reported economic damages exceeding US$1151 billion. Extracted measures of flood severity (flood duration, people killed and displaced, and total damage) showed some weaker, albeit detectable correlations to natural forest cover and loss. Based on an arbitrary decrease in natural forest area of 10 %, the model-averaged prediction of flood frequency increased between 4 and 28 % among the countries modeled. Using the same hypothetical decline in natural forest area resulted in a 4 – 8 % increase in total flood duration. These correlations suggest that global-scale patterns in mean forest trends across countries are meaningful with respect to flood dynamics. Unabated loss of forests may increase or exacerbate the number of flood-related disasters, negatively impact millions of poor people, and inflict trillions of dollars in damage in disadvantaged economies over the coming decades. This first global-scale empirical demonstration that forests are correlated with flood risk and severity in developing countries reinforces the imperative for large-scale forest protection to protect human welfare, and suggests that reforestation may help to reduce the frequency and severity of flood-related catastrophes.