We have an opportunity like never before to avoid the creation of new disaster risk and apply the brakes to economic losses
In recent days, world headlines have been dominated by the mudslides in California which at the time of writing have claimed 17 lives and injured many more. The economic losses triggered by the sudden flows of earth, rocks and debris from hillsides stripped bare by last year’s wildfires will add further to the US$300 billion of economic losses suffered by the US in the last year.
Last August, Sierra Leone had a similar environmental disaster but the death toll was enormous. Hundreds died when a nighttime mudslide destroyed, without warning, whole neighborhoods in Freetown as torrential rain swept down hillsides stripped bare to provide fuel and farmland for impoverished households.
It’s a stark illustration of the fact that disaster fatalities are more influenced by socio-economic vulnerability, and exposure or lack of protection from the elements, than by the hazard itself.
Since 1990 almost 90% of mortality recorded in major internationally reported disasters has occurred in low and middle income countries.
Poverty and Inequality are major obstacles to reducing disaster losses and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
Nothing lays bare the resilience gap in today’s world like a disaster triggered by a flood, a storm, an earthquake or a heatwave.
Some 220,000 people died in the 2010 earthquake which rocked Haiti reducing the capital Port-au-Prince to rubble with economic losses equivalent to 120% GDP, setting back the country’s development efforts by many years.
In least developed countries particularly, the inadequacy of the built environment is often exposed by major disasters and underlines the importance of taking specific steps to upgrade slums which house more than 800 million people and turn them into sustainable cities and towns with thriving communities which are inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
Economic losses ensuing from disasters devour a much greater proportion of GDP in countries at the lower end of the Human Development Index than among those at the top despite the great difference in terms of absolute economic losses. Average annual disaster losses are equivalent to 22% of social expenditure in low-income countries.
The World Bank estimates that disasters force 26 million people into poverty every year. An ODI briefing paper for the World Humanitarian Summit calculated that as many as 325 million extremely poor people could be living in the 49 most hazard-prone countries by 2030.
The Sisyphean nature of the task ahead, if we do not step up investment in disaster risk reduction, is further emphasized by the fact that disasters contributed to a rise in world hunger of 38 million people in 2016 and the displacement of over 20 million people.
The good news though is that we have an opportunity like never before to avoid the creation of new disaster risk and apply the brakes to economic losses.
It is estimated that US$6 trillion will have to be invested annually in infrastructure (urban, land-use and energy systems) by 2030. This unprecedented drive towards urbanization can come as a great boon to many if it is carried through in a manner which avoids the creation of disaster risk and seeks to reduce existing levels of risk.
According to analysis in UNISDR’s 2015 Global Assessment Report for Disaster Risk Reduction, typical benefit to cost ratios for prospective disaster risk management lies in the range of 3:1 to 15:1. If indirect benefits for these new towns and cities are factored in then the dividends of risk informed investment will pay off in many positive ways beyond simply avoiding future disaster losses.
One obvious area is the reduced cost of response and recovery in an era when climate change is already having an impact on the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. This can leave more money to be spent in vital areas such as eradicating poverty and hunger, and providing health and education for all.