Some things are easier said than done, and preparing for natural disasters is certainly one.
The fact is preparation costs money, takes a lot of long-term planning and requires ongoing political commitment.
In the West, we trust our leaders – perhaps not always with good reason, as Hurricane Katrina showed New Orleans – to take necessary measures. We count on them to build flood protections and coastal defence, and to raise the alert should disaster approach.
But in countries where resources are limited, governments in even the most disaster-prone parts of the world have proven slow to plan and slower still to act. When disaster strikes, communities are left to cope alone.
Yet we have found that, if they are aware, if they are prepared, and if they know the risks, lives can be saved.
Through our partners in around 50 countries, helping communities take precautions. And while preparation comes at a price, it isn’t nearly as costly doing nothing.
In Bangladesh, an average of 12 to 13 tropical storms strike every year. These storms and cyclones are among the most destructive in the world. While they only contribute around 5% of the global total of storms they account for about 75% of global losses from storms in terms of lives and property.
This damage can be reduced if only people are made aware of the risks. For example, Christian Aid’s Bangladeshi partners work with communities to draw maps of their villages, identifying houses and areas most at risk so they can protect them. Local early warning systems are established using community radios and linking them to Red Cross warning systems.
In 1998, Hurricane Mitch killed 20,000 people and caused massive economic losses across Central America. Three years later, an even stronger hurricane hit Cuba, yet only five people died.
The difference was that, in Cuba, people were prepared. More than 700,000 people were evacuated to emergency shelters hours before the hurricane struck.
Building on these experiences, Christian Aid has supported communities across Central America and the Caribbean to prepare evacuation plans and build flood defences and anti-erosion barriers to provide protection from future storms.
In Malawi, poor rains repeatedly result in pitiful harvests. When crops fail up and down the country, thousands of children are reduced to eating just one meal a day or less.
It’s not lack of rain that leads to this. It is people’s poverty that prevents them storing food and having the funds to plant more crops. They don’t have the means to store surplus harvest for use during lean times or to grow a broader variety of crops that may need more inputs but would also result in higher yields.
When harvests failed in southern Malawi, seeds and water, provided by Christian Aid partner CARD (Churches’ Action in Relief and Development), enabled many families to plant a second crop.
Lives are cheap
While prevention must be paid for in the present, the benefits lie in a distant future, as former UN secretary general Kofi Annan once said. ‘Moreover the benefits are not tangible – they are the disasters that did not happen.’
However, the fact remains that it doesn’t cost that much to save lives.
- A small earthquake-resistant primary school in India costs 240,000 rupees (£3,000) to build, just 40,000 rupees (£500) more than a standard school. The cost of making an existing school quake-resistant is 30,000 rupees (£380). Yet a school in the town of Balakot killed 500 boys when it collapsed as a result of the Kashmiri quake in 2005
- A flood and cyclone shelter built by the Church’s Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA) in west Bengal costs around 1.8 million rupees (£23,000). During floods in 2001 and 2003, more than 1,000 people sought safety in each of CASA’s shelters
- One partner used £85,000 to pay for a ‘nutrition garden’ project in Zimbabwe. This trains around 240 gardeners to produce quick-growing and highly nutritious crops. The garden ensures people have enough to eat in times of famine, as well as providing the nutrition HIV-positive people need to help prevent the onset of AIDS.
We are not talking about gigantic infrastructural projects that cost millions and make you wonder who the money is really going to. We are talking about simple steps that encourage poor communities to adapt to the changing environment and reduce the risk of future disasters.
At Christian Aid, we are committed to taking these simple steps to prevent the worst impact of sudden disasters, such as cyclones or earthquakes. But we also tackle the disasters out of the headlines, such as drought, which can cost equal numbers of lives.