When it comes to dealing with disasters, resilience is key, experts say.
Devastating hurricanes, floods and other extreme weather cannot be avoided, particularly as the world’s climate changes and as weather patterns are expected to become more unpredictable and possibly more destructive, scientists say. And as more people around the globe move to urban areas, their exposure to these events is going up.
So how should governments cope? They must create strategies aimed not just at preventing the harm caused by disasters but also improving the ability of their countries to recover after a disaster hits, according to scientists focused on how to prepare for and cope with natural disasters.
This year’s United Nations Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction focuses on the interconnections between disasters and economic growth and development.
The paper, Revealing Risk, Redefining Development analyses how to reduce disaster damages globally and is a product of the Hyogo Framework for Action, a 10-year plan adopted in 2005 by over 150 member states of the U.N. that aims to make the world safer from natural hazards. The report draws from data from 130 governments and dozens of universities, scientific institutions and experts.
POPULATION UP, DEATHS DOWN
Since the 1970s, the world’s population has doubled but the number of people living on cyclone-prone coastlines has quadrupled, said Andrew Maskrey, the report’s coordinator, at its United Kingdom launch last week.
Despite that, death tolls from cyclones are falling in many countries, largely because governments are working to protect people living there, through measures like building concrete storm shelters or improving early warning systems.
“The exposure’s been rocketing up but countries have actually been quite successful at reducing their vulnerability,” Maskrey said. “The risk of dying in a disaster is decreasing.”
Over the past 20 years, the risk of being killed by a cyclone or a flood has generally decreased, something the report describes as “a brightly lit niche in a largely shadow-filled room.”
One of those shadows is the tendency for deaths to be increasingly concentrated in low-income countries with weak governance. In poorly governed countries, the risk of death from cyclones and other extreme events is actually growing, the report said.
“Ultimately, these risks are closely related to development patterns and development trajectories and development trends,” Maskrey said.
In urban areas, in particular, a whole new range of vulnerabilities are emerging as “societies become increasingly dependent on systems that are interconnected,” he said. Japan recently suffered such a “sequential crisis,” he said, when an earthquake led to a tsunami that led to a nuclear crisis.
The vulnerabilities that are emerging must now be tackled, Maskrey said, and can be done so, at least in part, while also addressing another growing danger - climate change.
Around the world, “you find social and economic processes and vulnerability to the shocks and stresses of climate change combining,” David Dodman, a a senior researcher with the International Institute for Environment and Development, told AlertNet after the report launch.
According to Dodman, who works on the links between climate change and urbanisation, urban areas are now home to a third of the world’s population, making for a “concentration of poverty and a concentration of vulnerability.”
This heightened threat, he said, is not just from natural disasters but also from the effects of climate change.
“Often low-income groups have to make trade-offs in the locations where they live,” he said. To get access to jobs or find affordable land, they may choose to live in central but flood-prone slums, for instance.
“That’s one clear way where socioeconomic processes make certain groups vulnerable,” Dodman said.
Recent research suggests there is evidence for a rise in the frequency and intensity of disasters as a result of climate change. But Dodman said that figuring out how much more frequently disasters will hit – every 20 years instead of every 100, for instance – is less important than figuring out how to deal with the damage from the extreme event itself.
Putting in place laws designed to help people handle the impacts of disasters could help countries build a comprehensive safety net, he said. Dealing with climate change adaptation and disaster risk management together also could be effective in building resilience, particularly if climate change is taken into consideration in national development plans.
What is needed, Dodman said, is a “resilience framework” that is not focused on a specific extreme event.
“Working according to predictions of future events is less important,” he said. “It’s more important to work on strengthening resilience.”
Soumya Karlamangla is an AlertNet Climate intern.