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Disaster risk: How poverty leads to catastrophe

Source(s):  Allianz Group, Allianz SE

Editorial by James Tulloch

From the Book of Genesis to the Epic of Gilgamesh and the fable of Atlantis, stories of Great Floods are common to many cultures. These catastrophes are almost always acts of angry Gods. And today we still name hurricanes and cyclones as if they were furious deities: it was ‘Katrina’ who destroyed New Orleans.

Looked at this way, right now the Gods must be very angry indeed. In the last two decades, more than 1.5 million people have been killed by natural disasters.

Disastrous floods, tropical storms, earthquakes and droughts—which together claim over 90 percent of natural disaster deaths—are happening twice as often as in the 1980s and seven times as often as in the 1950s, according to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED). Most striking is the huge jump in weather-related disasters.

But what really explains this extraordinary acceleration?

From natural hazard to natural disaster

The answer lies in the difference between a natural hazard—cyclone, earthquake, volcano—and a natural disaster—death and destruction on a large scale.

“A hazard's destructive potential is a function of the magnitude, duration, location and timing of the event. To be damaged, however, elements exposed must also be vulnerable,” explains a report by the Global Natural Disaster Risk Hotspots project backed by the World Bank and Columbia University.

Put more simply: “it only becomes a disaster when you introduce poverty,” says Ian Bray, spokesman for UK charity Oxfam.

Poverty equals vulnerability. “Global disaster risk is highly concentrated in poorer countries with weaker governance,” is the first key finding of the United Nations’ 2009 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction.

That’s why the Haiti earthquake killed over 200,000 people while the much stronger Chilean tremor a few weeks later claimed less than 1,000 lives. And that’s why the 10 hurricanes, storms and floods that have struck both Haiti and the Dominican Republic since 2004 killed 3,500 people in Haiti but just 200 people in its richer island neighbor.

Weak infrastructure, crumbling buildings, rapid population growth, poor governance, precarious rural livelihoods and ecosystem decline all underpin the rapid expansion of disaster risk, especially weather-related risk, in the developing world.

Climate change will make things worse, skewing disaster impacts even more towards poorer communities.

Knowledge is power

The UN Development Program (UNDP) pinpoints which kinds of countries are most exposed to particular disaster types in its report ‘Reducing Disaster Risk’.

Earthquakes: Countries with high urban growth rates like China and Indonesia

Tropical cyclones: Countries with a high percentage of arable land like Myanmar and the Philippines

Floods: Countries with low Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita like Bangladesh and India

The UNDP report also found that smaller countries were more exposed to natural hazards and while only 11 percent of the people exposed to natural hazards live in poor countries, they account for more than 53 percent of total deaths. As the above examples show, disaster risk is concentrated in Asia.

In rural areas the poor are concentrated on the most marginal lands vulnerable to drought, flood and other natural hazards.

And the poor, through ignorance and desperation, can contribute to their own downfall by deforesting hillsides or over-cultivating farmland thereby leading to new cycles of flood, drought or landslides.

Meanwhile rapid, uncontrolled urbanization is also creating new disaster risks in the developing world’s densely populated, poorly constructed cities with people crowding into ravines, steep slopes or floodplains.

“In the next 20 years the world’s population will grow by about 2 billion people and all the growth will occur in cities in the developing world. That results in more people in shoddily-built buildings,” warns Brian Tucker, president of NGO Geohazards International.

Knowing these risk factors makes disasters more foreseeable and therefore means governments can plan how to protect people and develop their economies more safely. “Development needs to be regulated in terms of its impact on disaster risk,” says the UNDP report.

That means building better rather than blaming ‘Acts of God’ and relying on disaster relief aid. Knowledge of the risks also paves the way for insuring and microinsuring people and property against those risks.

To protect and serve

Unfortunately, as Tucker and the UN agree, to poverty we can add poor governance as disaster risk factors.

It wasn’t Katrina that flooded two New Orleans neighborhoods, ruled District Judge Stanwood Duval in 2009. It was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ “negligent failure” to maintain flood defenses.

It wasn’t the weather that turned drought into famine in the Congo, Kenya and Sudan. It was armed conflict and weak food distribution networks.

And in China, the government faces accusations that it was not the Sichuan earthquake that collapsed schools killing schoolchildren, but corrupt builders and officials.

In stark contrast, no child has died in a Californian school during an earthquake since 1933. Similarly, earthquakes in Japan kill fewer people than in developing countries thanks to “better enforcement of building codes, better emergency response, and the generally high level of preparedness,” says the Disaster Risks Hotspots report.

Like the Japanese, the Dutch have shown how it is possible, with proper planning and political will, to contain natural hazards, in their case storm surges and flooding rivers.

So have the Bangladeshis, in a more low-tech way, by setting up early warning systems for floods and cyclones based on volunteers on bicycles with megaphones, and text message alerts.

“Good progress is also being made in other areas,” reports the UNDP. “Upgrading squatter settlements, strengthening rural livelihoods, protecting ecosystems, and using microfinance, microinsurance…to strengthen resilience shows that it is possible to address the underlying drivers of disaster risk.”

Ancient flood myths owe more to their civilizations’ proximity to massive rivers like the Nile, the Indus, and the Euphrates than to divine intervention. Back then technology couldn’t contain the floodwaters.

Now humanity has the technology and the expertise, but not all communities can pay for it. It is our responsibility to find ways to distribute it so that natural hazards don’t turn into natural disasters.



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  • Publication date 17 Mar 2010

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