OPINION: Building resilience to extreme weather is crucial amid the coronavirus pandemic

Thomson Reuters Foundation, trust.org

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It is vital that developing countries get the support needed to build resilience to climate change threats as well as the virus

By Ann Vaughan, Advocacy Lead, Mercy Corps for the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance

In worrying news this week, US climate scientists are warning of a hyperactive storm season in the Atlantic, with predictions of as many as 20 named hurricanes over the next six months.

This is hot on the heels of last week’s monster storm in the Bay of Bengal that forced 3 million people to flee their homes in India and Bangladesh and a ‘once in a decade’ storm in Western Australia that battered the city of Perth, home to two million.

Focussing attention on people’s vulnerability to storms is challenging for humanitarian actors amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, as is galvanising international support to fund efforts to prevent natural hazards from becoming disasters.

We cannot compare one crisis to another, but we know from the work of the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance in developing and developed countries, there is another grave threat to humanity, albeit one that is far less likely to make headlines – flooding.

Floods, which affected 734 million between 2007-2017, cause people to gather on higher ground and to seek safety, packed tightly together, in flood evacuation shelters in places like schools, mosques and churches. They can lead to a loss of housing, disease outbreaks, infections and damage critical infrastructure, such as hospitals and clinics. They can impact livelihoods and education, pushing vulnerable people into even more tenuous states of existence.

In parts of the developing world prone to flooding, places like Indonesia, Nepal and Central America, we are concerned that, without adequate resourcing, they may struggle to cope with a disaster alongside COVID-19.

Our immediate concern is for the millions of people at risk of flooding from the monsoon season in Asia.

This includes hundreds of thousands of Rohingya now living in densely packed camps in Bangladesh. They are also at risk of COVID-19 because it is hard to respect physical distancing when you are forced to live shoulder to shoulder.

The challenges are great, but we must prioritise building community resilience to floods.

We can start by investing more in ways to reduce community risk to natural hazards and climate change. Disaster risk reduction counts for approximately 0.4 percent of the total international aid investment by wealthy governments and donors.

Indeed, we tend to spend vast sums of money responding to a disaster, rather than prevent one from happening. Yet we have found that for every $1 invested in disaster risk reduction, we save on average $5 in future losses.

While the world must fund the recently launched launched UN appeal for $6.7 billion in humanitarian assistance for developing countries at risk of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, we must also think creatively how to use this funding to build community resilience to natural hazards like floods.

Take our own work in Nepal, for example. For the past 13 years, we’ve supported the communities in western Nepal mitigate impacts of hazards such as flooding, through preventative measures like planting sugarcane on riverbanks.

These communities benefit from planting sugarcane because it can prevent soil erosion and has been proven to tolerate flood conditions for weeks, as its roots penetrate deep in the ground. Cane also has a good market value and demand, therefore has the added benefit of helping increase the incomes of community members.

Around the world there are countless other projects that build community resilience to natural hazards.

This can include new, climate smart infrastructure such as widespread micro-irrigation or sustainable energy; planting flood resistant crops; improving livelihoods through labour-intensive, cash-for-work natural infrastructure projects; and using nature-based solutions to address coastal erosion and sea-level rise.

We are all in a global fight against the pandemic, but some nations are better placed to help protect the most vulnerable, at home and overseas. It is vital that developing countries get the support needed to build resilience to the virus and other threats they face as a result of climate change.

No-one should be left behind or forgotten because of the COVID-19 global health crisis.

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