In San Francisco, it’s a nuisance. In India, it can cost tens of thousands of lives. An earthquake may be natural, but its consequences are not. Do people in the developing world have to die in disasters? We don’t think so.
Aid agencies seem to spend most of their time in ‘Disasterland’, a place of endless appeals, unavoidable tragedy and inevitable death tolls.
But even as natural disasters mount in incidence and intensity, the death tolls are avoidable. While earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, cyclones, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions can be described as ‘natural’, their costs are not.
People do not have to die as a result of these disasters. There are practical, effective ways to help poor families protect their lives and ways of living. It’s all about reducing the risk to the most vulnerable.
If you’re poor, you’re vulnerable
While natural hazards, such as floods and earthquakes, cause the greatest economic damage in rich countries it is in poor countries that we find a similar event becoming a ‘disaster’, killing thousands and making many homeless.
Take San Francisco, a city which is no stranger to earthquakes. Typically, they cause skyscrapers to sway, books to fall from shelves and traffic congestion.
In 1999, a quake of similar magnitude to those California deals with left 30,000 people dead in the Indian state of Gujarat. Most were crushed beneath their sub-standard brick homes.
Over the last 15 years, while three times as many disasters happened in developing countries as in developed countries, the number of people killed in developing countries was more than ten times higher.
Even within a single country, it is the very poorest families and communities who bear the brunt. Hurricane Katrina, which struck the southern United States in 2005, provides the most striking example of how a natural hazard causes disaster by lack of planning to reduce risks. In this instance, levees were only designed to deal with a force 3 hurricane not a category 5 one. Moreover, not all the defences were complete.
People can prepare, cope and recover
In Europe, we are already growing accustomed to our hotter, longer summers – and climate change forecasts suggest more of the same in the future.
But for all the ominous indicators, we know that we can cope for the foreseeable future.
Now imagine a hotter summer in Ethiopia. Or a wetter monsoon season in Bangladesh. Or heavier storms in Honduras. Will a farmer in Africa, a market trader in Asia, or a goat herder in Central America be able to cope?
In each case, the answer, perhaps surprisingly, is yes. But only if they have the means to do so.
More ways to earn a living, greater opportunities, better access to education and healthcare services, stronger social networks – all of these can make people more self-reliant when disaster strikes, to cope better and recover more quickly afterwards.
Of course, such measures would also help lift people out of poverty. This is no coincidence.
However, while development is supposed to improve people’s lives, there are times when it can put them at risk.
Research commissioned by Christian Aid shows that industrial shrimp farming on India’s south-eastern coast, promoted as a significant development opportunity, has increased local communities’ vulnerability in multiple ways.
Shrimp farms caused water logging, turning heavy monsoon rains into dangerous floods, while pollution and salinisation destroyed valuable agricultural land.
When the Boxing Day tsunami struck in 2004, death tolls in those villages were significantly higher than in neighbouring villages, as protective cover from natural mangrove forests had been destroyed. While it is impossible to prove that the shrimp farms were directly linked to the destruction of mangroves in the region, the fishermen and farmers of the area are convinced there is a connection.
Yet, investments into shrimp farming and similar economic development projects are still being supported by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
This needs to stop. We need to look further ahead. Most crucially of all, risk reduction must be a cornerstone of all development work.
It makes economic sense
At the same time, we need to ensure any progress already made is not undone.
Valuable development achievements can be completely derailed by a single disaster. The destruction of a school building can mean disruption to the education of hundreds of children for several months, even years. Resources earmarked for other essential projects will have to be spent on reconstruction.
So apart from saving lives, disaster risk reduction also makes economic sense. According to DFID, research indicates that every pound invested in risk reduction can potentially save between £2 to £4, in terms of avoided or reduced disaster impacts.
The UK government has taken the welcome step of pledging 10 per cent of its humanitarian aid on disaster risk reduction. Christian Aid wants more donor governments – and more of its fellow charities – to follow suit.
There’s plenty to be done. We are still learning about the exact costs and benefits of reducing disaster risk. And while we know that it helps to be prepared, we need more facts and arguments to convince governments when they have to make tough decisions. We have only just begun.