Poverty is both a driver and consequence of disasters, and the processes that further disaster risk related poverty are permeated with inequality
Socio-economic inequality is likely to continue to increase and with it disaster risk for those countries, communities, households and businesses that have only limited opportunities to manage their risks and strengthen their resilience. The geography of inequality expresses itself at all scales: between regions and countries, within countries and inside cities and localities.
Vulnerability is not simply about poverty, but extensive research over the past 30 years has revealed that it is generally the poor who tend to suffer worst from disasters. Impoverished people are more likely to live in hazard-exposed areas and are less able to invest in risk-reducing measures. The lack of access to insurance and social protection means that people in poverty are often forced to use their already limited assets to buffer disaster losses, which drives them into further poverty. Poverty is therefore both a cause and consequence of disaster risk, particularly extensive risk, with drought being the hazard most closely associated with poverty. The impact of disasters on the poor can, in addition to loss of life, injury and damage, cause a total loss of livelihoods, displacement, poor health, food insecurity, among other consequences.
Research suggests that disasters cause impoverishment, which can lead to a cycle of losses, poverty traps and a slowing of efforts to reduce poverty. However, not every disaster leads to such negative long-term impacts and recovery can be relatively quick in some countries compared to others - with notable differences between and among different socio-economic groups.
The richest 2% of the world's adult population now own over 50% of global wealth, whereas the bottom 50% own less than 1% of global wealth (UNDRR, 2015b).
While absolute losses tend to be higher amongst wealthier groups, the relative impact of disasters on low-income households is far greater. Take the example of Hurricane Mitch - in 1998, which destroyed over a quarter of the household implements, tools or animals of the wealthiest 20% of households but only a tenth in the case of the poorest 20% of households. However, because the poorest households had so little to start with, the impact of their losses was more severe. The poorest group lost nearly 18% of their pre-Mitch asset value and 40% of their total crop value, compared to just 3% and 25% respectively for the wealthiest group.
Disaster risks in rural areas may be particularly invisible, given the low density of produced capital and declining population. Poor rural livelihoods are highly exposed and vulnerable to weather-related hazards and have a low resilience to loss because they have little or no surplus capacity to absorb crop or livestock income losses and to recover. Even a small loss might feedback into further poverty and future vulnerability.
Poverty and disaster risk are also pervasive in urban areas. Generally, poor urban households derive most or all their income from work in the informal economy, meaning that precise figures on urban poverty are lacking. Housing is usually the principal economic asset of poor urban households, providing not only shelter and personal security, but also often their livelihood. Damage or loss to housing, together with essential domestic possessions, therefore, places enormous strain on household economies, given the high monetary cost of replacing lost assets, relative to low and irregular incomes, and the absence of insurance or safety nets. Urban poverty is now understood to have many additional dimensions - including 'voicelessness' and 'powerlessness', and inadequate provision of infrastructure and basic services. Most of the immediate causes of the deprivations associated with urban poverty are risk related.
Inequality is not just about the unequal distribution of income.
Disaster risk is shaped by a range of social and economic factors that determine entitlements and capabilities. Access to services, political voice, and social and economic status directly affect disaster risk and resilience. Key factors in underprivileged areas include low-quality and insecure housing, which in turn limits access to basic services such as health care, public transport, communications, and infrastructure such as water, sanitation, drainage and roads. Higher mortality and morbidity rates among children, the elderly and women are directly linked to these different poverty factors.
Inequality facilities the transfer of disaster risks from those who benefit from risk taking to those who bear the cost, through ineffective accountability and increased corruption (see hyperlink for examples). Inequality is linked to other risk drivers, since it redistributes disaster risk through uneven economic development, segregated urban development, climate change and the overconsumption of resources. If inequality continues to rise, it may become a destabilising global force that manifests not only in increasing disaster risk but also in decreasing capacities to manage those risks.