G. Padmanabhan, Emergency Analyst, United Nations Development Programme
The devastating impact of recent hurricanes in the Carribbean Islands and in parts of the United States indicate how important it is to plan and prepare for disasters, especially if we are to minimise the number of people affected by them. The wrenching stories coming out of the places worst-hit by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, of families left in the dark without power or water for days and weeks, highlight the urgency of the task at hand. Today, the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, is a good opportunity to take stock of the strides made in preparing for and managing the fallout from disasters, while planning for the task that still lies ahead.
In the new milleniuum, countries have made rapid progress in establishing institutions backed by laws and rules to handle disaster management, culminating in the adoption of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in 2015 by world leaders at the Third World Conference on Disasater Risk Reduction. But, as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently noted, over the past 30 years, the number of annual weather-related disasters has nearly tripled, and economic loss from them has quintupled. The World Bank estimates that earthquakes, climate change events, storms, floods, etc, cost as much as US $520 billion annually, forcing 26 million people into poverty around the world. The 2015 Global Assessment Report produced by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, the nodal UN agency coordinating disaster reduction activities, estimates that disasters cost India, on average, US $9.8 billion every year, including over $7 billion lost just due to floods.
These figures underline the need to take quick action in implementing the landmark Paris Agreement to reduce the incidence of intense and extreme climate events such as those faced by the people of, for instance, Puerto Rico, Texas, Dominica and the Virgin Islands. They also suggest the depth of the challenge that lies ahead, both internationally and for India in particular.
Most countries, including India, have now adopted a comprehensive approach to disaster management, rather than focusing only on response and relief. There is a deeper understanding that development will have to be risk informed – a key message from the Sendai Conference in 2015 that was reiterated at the Global Platform in Cancun in 2017. But while this approach has led to impressive and necessary progress where it matters most, in terms of the immediate human cost of disaster, countries have found that strengthening preparedness has not had the same impact on economic loss. On the contrary, such losses are increasing, as more and more productive assets are exposed to hazards. In India, excellent community preparedness and improvements in early warning systems helped the state of Odisha in 2013 to dramatically reduce casualities from Cyclone Phailin to 20, down from 10,000 in 1999, when the state was hit by a cyclone of similar intensity. But the loss in terms of economic assets was very high, and this obviously has an impact on the quality of life of those whose fields and houses were hit by the cyclone.
Unprecedented rainfall in many Indian states has caused floods across the country, from Srinagar to Chennai. What used to be a freak incident appears to have transmuted into annual phenomena. In states such as Assam and Bihar, rain patterns that veer between drought and deluge have affected the soil and productivity. As extreme weather events become more common, it is important to recognise that disaster risk reduction strategies cannot be implemented by governments alone. Other key stakeholders, including NGOs and the private sector, must also undertake disaster risk reduction practices.
Another problem is the inability to understand the various dimensions of risk. The methodologies to capture multi-hazard risk, including those that can be anticipated due to climate change, are limited to experts, most of whom are in private consultancy institutions, while the government owns the relevant data. The impact of climate change on moulding the nature of extreme events is even now a work in progress, as we can’t yet predict the trajectory of a number of events over a geographical area.
We also need to get better at communicating various aspects of risk, especially to those most vulnerable to disaster. The first priority of the Sendai Framework is “risk information”. But unless countries develop their capacity and ability to assess risks and use innovative methods enabled by new technology side by side with traditional communication measures to reach out to people, these messages will continue to fall through the cracks.
Even though the number of people dying in disasters is decreasing, the number of those affected is increasing. But we can only hope to address this once we know who is identified as “affected” – and, importantly, who is not. While people who are displaced or injured or due to disasters are normally included, people whose dwellings are either destroyed or damaged tend to be excluded. Disasters also affect livelihoods, permanent and temporary. Therefore, if we are to truly reduce the number of people affected by disasters, we need to expand the scope of current preparedness, with a better and more complete understanding of the risks involved across dimensions.
The writer is emergency analyst, United Nations Development Programme