By Vinod Thomas
The last three years will be remembered for deadly climate-related disasters, among them the great floods in Thailand in 2011, Hurricane Sandy in the United States in 2012 and Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013.
The message for 2014 is clear: we must do much more to prepare for disasters before they strike and not only react after the fact.
The immediate priority after a disaster occurs is relief and recovery for the affected. At the same time, a crucial lesson is to recover with care and to rebuild better in anticipation of future events.
But such preparedness lags because these disasters still tend to be viewed as one-off acts of nature rather than systematic recurrences.
Three factors make for more frequent repeats of these events globally: people’s exposure, their vulnerability and the intensity of the hazards. Rising populations have meant that more people are living in harm’s way, for example, in low-lying coastal areas.
Environmental degradation, for instance, deforestation, has left communities vulnerable. And global warming is amplifying the power of hazards
Just as governments try to cushion financial shocks, so too should they invest in cutting disaster risk, as its consequences are just as grave. Thailand’s floods cost the economy an estimated $46.5 billion (1.5 trillion baht) in damages and production losses, showing how disasters can affect regional and global supply chains after flooding stopped production in computer and car factories. The estimated damage caused by Hurricane Sandy totalled $68 billion.
Confronting growing threat
Yet dealing with natural disasters is still largely considered a cost to be borne after calamity strikes, rather than an investment to confront a growing threat.
Disaster risk reduction accounts for just 40 cents of every $100 in total international development aid. For governments, one recommended level of spending in this respect is 1to 2 percent of national budgets. More important than the exact percentages is promoting their effective use.
Among the most important investments is to make resilient the infrastructure for water, hospitals and evacuation centres. From Asia to Latin America, breaks in these lifelines are a major cause of the desperation that often follows weather disasters and earthquakes.
The seismic retrofitting of hospitals in Sendai, Japan, enabled them to continue functioning after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. Disaster-proofing hospitals by one measure adds less than a tenth to the cost of new hospitals, while rebuilding a destroyed hospital virtually doubles its initial cost.
Building and rebuilding activities need to consider better standards for disaster resilience.
At risk are coastal cities in the path of typhoons, such as Tacloban in the central Philippines, devastated by Typhoon Haiyan’s storm surge, and flood-prone cities such as Mumbai, where record breaking rains in 2005 took several hundred lives in monsoon floods.
Shifting to low-carbon economy
Countries also need to help mitigate climate change, most importantly by shifting to a low-carbon economy. Gains would accrue to economies at all stages of development, as all are under threat from climate change. For instance, Bangkok and Manila as well as Los Angeles and Tokyo are in the top-ten lists of cities at risk from different natural disasters.
Not one country typifies good practices, but there are examples to build on. Bangladesh spent $10 billion in the past four decades on cyclone readiness, including early warning, disaster resilient shelters, and embankment protection. So while over 300,000 people were killed in Cyclone Bhola in 1970, the death toll from an even stronger cyclone in 2007 was around 4,000. Capacity to respond is extremely vital as shown by the experience of Malaysia and Singapore with search and rescue.
Thailand, in the wake of the 2011 floods, promoted catastrophe insurance for small businesses, while in Turkey earthquake insurance is compulsory. Investments to reduce risks have risen in Indonesia and the Philippines, where a high-level inter-ministerial council manages disaster risk reduction.
It is no longer far-fetched to think that Southeast Asia could see two events like the Thai floods in one monsoon season, or the 2009 Typhoon Ketsana which dumped more water on Manila in hours than normal in a month.
Preparing for such scenarios means spending more and better ahead of disasters, combining preparation and prevention with relief and recovery.
(Vinod Thomas is Director-General of Independent Evaluation at the Asian Development Bank)