MUCH OF MY LONG-TERM CAREER in the United Nations has been focused on disasters, and I was often struck by the seeming randomness of the death and destruction I encountered. In the 2010 Haiti earthquake, amidst devastation and block after block of collapsed structures, I would see a sole building standing-– its inhabitants mostly unharmed. Typhoon Haiyan’s fury was unleashed on the Philippines in November 2013 and thousands perished, but others heeded early warning and sought safety inland, preserving their lives.
These disasters – and many others – I covered shared similar underlying factors: a lack of preparedness, weak governance, un-addressed vulnerabilities such as poverty, gender inequality and social exclusion, and in many cases a lack of commitment to address the root causes of the crisis.
A NEED FOR MORE ATTENTION AND RESOURCES – BEFORE RATHER THAN AFTER
I recently shifted my career from responding to disasters to trying to prevent them instead. Over the years I came to understand that so much of the widespread destruction and loss of life in emergencies could have been avoided if governments and communities had focused far more attention and resources on disaster prevention.
Six months ago, I became Chief of the UNISDR (United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction) regional office in Bangkok covering 42 countries in Asia and Pacific. In the past months, we marked the tenth anniversary of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar which killed 140,000 people and the Sichuan earthquake in China which left 70,000 people dead. In both cases, the high death tolls and billions of US dollars in economic losses could have been largely mitigated by more robust disaster risk reduction measures.
In Myanmar, the cyclone’s impacts were greatly exacerbated by earlier damage to the environment, including deforestation and destruction of mangroves which could have served as a buffer against the storm surge. Cyclone Nargis illustrates the vicious circle in which a hazard can become a major disaster due, in part, to environmental degradation.
In China, thousands of children perished when their school buildings collapsed during the Sichuan earthquake and since then the government has enforced strict building codes, especially on public structures such as schools and hospitals.
A few weeks ago, I visited China’s National Disaster Management Centre in Beijing where teams are working 24 hours a day to monitor hazards across the country using satellite imagery. China invested heavily in these dedicated systems after the Sichuan earthquake specifcally to improve its prediction capacities and early warning systems for disaster management.
I have travelled extensively in the region in the past months and found that solid progress is being made in other countries as well to improve disaster risk reduction.
But I have also learned that far more investment is needed if the growing risks are to be averted. A person living in the Asia-Pacific region is five-times more likely to be affected by natural disasters than a person living outside the region. It is likely that 40 per cent of future global economic losses from disasters will be in Asia-Pacific, with the greatest losses in the largest economies – Japan and China, followed by the Republic of Korea and India.
MORE INTENSE CYCLONES AND TYPHOONS MEANS INCREASED DANGERS
Rapid, unplanned urbanization is creating new risks. Asia-Pacific has just over two billion urban residents. That’s 60 per cent of the world’s urban population. The region’s cities will grow by another billion by 2040. This means that by 2050, two thirds of the region’s population will live in cities. Huge concentrations of people and physical and financial assets in the region’s fast-growing cities means that a single major disaster can result in widespread human catastrophe and wipe out decades of development gains.
Colliding with this chaotic, galloping urbanization is climate change. Asia may see 50 per cent more rainfall due to climate change, leading to increased risk of flooding in cities. As global temperatures rise, more intense cyclones and typhoons will further increase the dangers.
A changing climate and rapidly growing exposure to disaster risk presents countries in Asia and the Pacific with an unprecedented challenge. To meet the growing threats in the region, new approaches are needed. Improving disaster preparedness and management remains critical, but we also need far more emphasis on understanding and managing risk.
This entails understanding the potential impact of a future hazard when deciding when and how to build new infrastructure, or when developing a new agricultural strategy. Embedding resilience means taking pre-emptive steps to address the potential impact of a disaster.
A simple example is making sure new infrastructure is built to withstand an earthquake. But resilience also includes educating people and making sure all members of a society are aware of the risks they face and are supported to take appropriate measures to protect their lives and livelihoods.
Mega-disasters such as the 2004 Tsunami or the 2015 Nepal earthquakes grab global headlines and result in devastating losses of lives and material damage. Unfortunately, it is often only after such catastrophes, that appropriate action is taken by governments, the private sector and civil society to prevent future similar disasters.
THE MORE WE DO IT NOW, THE LESS WE WILL PAY IN FUTURE.
These major events are rare though and it is, instead, the “silent” disasters that never make the news that have such a negative impact on sustainable social and economic growth in the Asia Pacific region. Low intensity, high frequency events such as local flooding, or mudslides that result in, for example, business closures, and transportation disruption are relentlessly chipping away at hard-earned development gains, keeping communities locked in poverty, and dependent on external resources to survive.
Part of my new professional challenge is to convince others that embedding resilience into development is an investment, not a cost. The more we do it now, the less we will pay in future. But in the few months since assuming my post, I have been confronted with the reality that disaster prevention does not attract the same resources as disaster response.
Governments and people naturally want to give money to help others when their lives and livelihoods are in danger and this is a good thing. This isn’t always the case when we say a disaster “might” happen and therefore resources are needed to avert potential future losses.
There is a cogent case for investing in disaster risk reduction especially at the community level even if a disaster does not strike. Taking measures to increase disaster resilience will help communities and countries achieve a more attractive investment climate.
A strengthened emphasis on environmental protection and community empowerment has a positive multiplier effect: creation of new jobs as well as improved and more diverse livelihoods. Such benefits are critical enablers for the achievement of sustainable development, which is at the heart of today’s global agenda.
The more we can do ‘upfront’ to build more resilient communities, cities and economies- the less impact disasters will have. This was a key message shared at the forthcoming Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction that UNISDR co-hosted with the Mongolian government in Ulaan Baatar in early July, 2018. Through risk-sensitive planning and investment in disaster risk reduction, countries can better safeguard their investments thereby ensuring development will be sustained for future generations. Nowhere is this more urgent than Asia-Pacific – the most disaster-prone region in the world and home to two-thirds of the global population.
Loretta Hieber-Girardet was with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) from 2009- 2017. Previously, she worked for the World Health Organisation, including in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Loretta Hieber-Girardet video explaining disaster risk problems facing Mongolia – and possible prevention measures.
Related Global Geneva articles on disaster risk reduction.
Dominica coping with disaster after Hurricane Maria by Jeff Carmel. https://www.global-geneva.com/dominica-coping-with-disaster/
Letter from a critical observer in the Himalayas by Julien Bettler. https://www.global-geneva.com/the-third-pole-letter-from-a-critical-observer-in-the-himalayas/