GENEVA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The "everyday" disasters that do most harm to poor people are going largely unnoticed, depriving many of aid that could stop them falling into a downward spiral, government officials and development experts say.
A report prepared for the U.N. Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva this week interviewed 21,455 people in 57 countries about disasters and prevention efforts, with 57 percent responding that losses are increasing. Among the poorest groups, that figure rose to 68 percent.
"The poorest said things are getting much, much worse," said Marcus Oxley, executive director of the Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction, which led the research. "The poorer you are, the less progress is being made. We need to get support down to those most at risk."
The report highlights how most damage in developing countries is caused not by the big disasters that hit the headlines, such as earthquakes or tsunamis that kill tens of thousands, but by small-scale, repeated disasters that affect people on a regular basis.
"Although cumulative losses due to these everyday disasters account for the majority of localised disaster losses, they are largely unreported, uninsured, do not attract national government attention or unlock external financial assistance," the Views from the Frontline report said.
It cites the problems experienced by the community of Fayette, 30 km outside the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, where persistent storms and floods have widened the river, eroding its banks. Each year homes and animals are washed away, fields inundated, and crops and grazing land destroyed. Damaged roads and bridges stop children going to school and farmers getting their produce to market.
POVERTY: CAUSE AND EFFECT
Speaking at the opening of the Geneva conference on Tuesday, Marisa Morais, Cape Verde's minister of home affairs, called for more attention to situations like this. "We must not lose sight of local disasters that mainly affect developing states. They contribute to impoverishment, and have a negative effect on our capacity for economic growth," she said.
In her country, which is made up of 10 islands, its main source of income - tourism - is causing environmental problems, including excessive use of water and pollution. Tourist infrastructure is exposed to flooding and local people are unable to grow enough food for themselves.
But the disasters that affect people in Cape Verde are rarely heard about, neither are those in Tanzania where nomadic herders are increasingly fighting settled farmers in the south over a lack of water for their animals.
The East African nation's environment minister, Terezya Huvisa, told reporters at the conference that the main barrier to reducing the impact of disasters in Tanzania is poverty. That has led to a lack of education and technology to set up warning systems, compounded by insufficient financial resources.
Nonetheless, the government does include disaster risk reduction in its environmental and other programmes, and has a body in the prime minister's office dedicated to the issue, as well as efforts at the village level.
"Whatever we are doing, it is seen as if we are doing nothing, but we are trying," she said. "Poverty is the hindrance here."
A report released by Oxfam this week showed that vulnerability – to climate change, natural hazards and insecurity – is higher in countries with greater income inequality. It argued that disaster risk reduction must address imbalances in power and people's rights rather than focusing too heavily on technical fixes, such as emergency preparedness.
"People's own determination to get out of poverty should be matched by our commitment to redistribute risk and build equality, thereby supporting them to thrive and prosper, rather than just cope and survive in a world of increasing risks," Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf wrote in a foreword to the study.
LEARNING FROM COMMUNITIES
The Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction is calling for a much greater focus on communities in a new global plan, due to be put in place in 2015. The current Hyogo Framework for Action, agreed in 2005, has helped push disaster risk reduction forward at the national level, said Oxley, "but when you go down to local level, it is a relatively flat line".
Anne Akwango of DENIVA, a development network for indigenous groups in Uganda, said the voices of people in disaster-hit communities must influence the next framework, so that it centres on their priorities for becoming more resilient to disasters. "It has to recognise impact of everyday disasters on lives and livelihoods," she said.
Oxley told Thomson Reuters Foundation that small disasters often don't register at national government level and communities are left to their own devices to cope. The world should learn from what they are doing, he said.
"I think the starting point is to look at how communities themselves deal with multiple shocks and stresses in a context of poverty and uncertainty," he said. "Let's look at how they build resilience... and how can we nurture, facilitate and support that?"
In the city of Lampa in quake-prone Chile, the municipality is trying to do this through a programme called "my family prepares itself". Graciela Ortuzar Novoa, Lampa's mayor, said council agents go into people's homes and work with them to bolster their daily resilience. But more financial support is needed for education and training at the local level - a situation that could be improved by enshrining disaster risk reduction in legislation, she added.
One example of this is in the Philippines, where local governments have a mandate to allocate 5 percent of their regular revenue to spending on disaster prevention.
Ortuzar Novoa urged the United Nations, governments and others to cooperate better with grassroots teams working alongside people who are living with the threat of disasters. "We are all key elements needed to guarantee a friendlier and safer world for future generations," she said.