Disasters and poverty: can the vicious circle be broken?

In June 2009, 153 governments, 138 international organisations from the United Nations system, international and national NGOs, representatives of science and others met in Geneva for the second Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction. This is a voluntary forum that works to reduce the impact of disaster events on individuals, communities and countries; and to promote learning, implementation and action for reducing risk. The meeting issued a strong call for concrete action in five major areas:

•     the application of disaster risk reduction approaches to immediately get started on adaptation to climate change;

•     drastically increased investment in disaster risk reduction, recognising that risk is reduced at local level by local governments working alongside the communities and civil society;

•     full commitment to empowering and resourcing local action;

•     special attention to making schools and hospitals safer – assessing all facilities in highly risk-prone areas by 2011 followed by a plan of action to improve the buildings by 2015; and

•     a call to stop short-lived pilot projects and instead invest in viable and sustainable programmes.

A paradigm shift All of the Global Platform’s work is aligned with the Hyogo Framework for Action. The Framework was launched in 2005 – just weeks after the Indian Ocean tsunami, with its deadly consequences, resulted in a paradigm shift. The tsunami had a profound impact even thousands of kilometres away, among communities not living in high-risk areas themselves, and has continued to shape our emotional and social perspective of disasters. A further driver of change in attitude to disasters has taken place with the recognition and identification by science that climate change is having a damaging effect on the earth – causing more frequent and more extreme climatic events, environmental hazards, and economic and other repercussions. While a large mainly scientific community has worked for more than 30 years to systematically gather facts and knowledge in order to reduce the impact of disasters, it now seems that the recognition of climate change’s impact has been the  real trigger for major change. Indeed, it offers opportunities for political and community leadership that have rarely been available until now. The UN First Global Assessment Report for Disaster Risk, Risk and poverty in a changing climate, was issued in May 2009. Based on the analysis of data from 7,000 disaster events over the past 37 years, the report gives irrefutable evidence for what every disaster response practitioner knows well : that disasters are happening more frequently, that the poor people (in both poor and rich countries) suffer most from disasters, and that their long-term livelihood is threatened by repeated localised disaster events that undermine the modest wealth generated by increasing income and efforts to eradicate absolute poverty in many countries. The report also demonstrates that in all parts of the world, risk and exposure to disaster events are  increasing, and that governments’capacity to reduce risk cannot keep pace with the increasing risk; hence, the costs of disasters are increasing rastically. In an average year, 85–90% of all disasters are related to weather events, and water or lack of water. Floods are the single most costly disaster category given their frequency and severity: they cause at least 50% of the economic losses recorded annually.

Who will bear the costs?

From this it is very obvious that the impact of global warming and climate change will continue to increase our vulnerability as societies, and as our societies  become more wealthy, the cost of disaster events increase.

Those countries and populations that already are most exposed to disasters will also be the first to suffer the impact of the ongoing shifts in weather impact related to floods, high winds and associated geo-hazards such as landslides. Many – even most – of the most exposed countries have large populations living in poverty, and several countries are large, rapidly growing and expanding economies.

While we are yet in the early stages of fully comprehending the impact of the changing climate on economies, the estimates indicate huge costs for adaptation and potentially huge costs for disasters.

Who will carry the burden of these costs?

For example, there are indications that with even the conservative two-degree increase in average temperatures, the agricultural output in India could fall by 25%. Globally the number of poor people living on less than $1.25 a day could increase from 1 billion  to 1.5 billion due to the impact of climate on production and labour.

Essentially, such impacts would reverse the significant achievements of the poverty reduction Millennium Development Goal targets, and drive many people back into poverty.

Risk reduction can roll back the destructive scenario Is this scenario irreversible, or can we change the pace and direction of the unfolding events? A recent report from a group that includes a major global re-insurance company, Shaping climate-resilient development, shows how the systematic application of risk reduction measures in agricultural irrigation practices, and in monitoring and oversight, protection of infrastructure, water management and other well-known practices, could in fact roll back this entire destructive scenario. The study demonstrates that through reducing the risks and the cost of response to the associated disasters and providing safeguards against future losses, productivity will not drop but rather will increase.

Mobilising comm unities Such a change in business practices requires a change of perspective and approach. There is the opportunity to tackle both disasters that reinforce poverty and those that increase  the number of poor people, through working in a manner that mobilises communities and draws on their keen knowledge of the opportunities and obstacles to take preventive and mitigating measures.

Many millions of poor women are an enormous untapped potential for action and for development of new resources. Through their innovations, their creativity in finding income sources for survival, their work to care for their families, to ensure their children get education, through their determination and sheer will power, they are rapidly changing the balance of work and wealth generation.

Our vision must be to recognise these women, to ensure that resources are available to them, to engage them directly in measures and action for local-level risk vulnerability reduction.

I have just had the privilege to visit and listen to large groups of women engaged in self-help groups in southern India. Their creativity and energy to tackle their considerable daily challenges is a source of inspiration  to us all. They have found that their most effective and efficient tool for change is themselves: through their groups built on mutual trust, and through assuming political or community leadership roles.

But they are acutely aware that their livelihoods are deeply threatened by the irregularity and unpredictability of rainfall and cropping seasons. They ask to be part of the solution to the challenge of adaptation to the weather and climate conditions.

To do that, they must have access to, and participate in creating, the body of knowledge that will enable and empower whole countries to adapt. Let us recognise their role, and let us all demonstrate a will and determination for concerted action such as these women and community actors have already demonstrated.

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