Bosai(防災) means disaster risk reduction or management, and it became our word of reference. As a group of professionals from disaster risk and cultural heritage management backgrounds visiting Japan, we used it in activities, as nicknames, and shouted in unison every time a group photo was taken. It represents a lesson that Japan has learned very well. Disasters have been part of the Japanese experience since the beginning of history. The Kobe Earthquake in 1995 and the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011 are just two recent examples of disasters from which Japan recovered under the motto “build back better.” On November 5 we will be marking the World Tsunami Awareness Day, and I cannot think of a better word than Bosai to capture its significance.
In an environment rife with natural disasters, Japan recognizes that climate change is a tangible reality that increases the intensity and frequency of these disasters. The country knows very well the threat they pose not only to its people, economy, or infrastructure, but also to its cultural heritage.
Intangible culture is equally important, especially helping people in the recovery process and ensuring that we learn from the past. Take for instance the example of ancient local knowledge used around the world, and ask yourself: are we listening to our ancestors’ warnings?
Cities are home to more than half of the world’s population, consume two-thirds of the world’s energy, and produce 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And this trend will only continue: by 2050, 66% of the 10 billion people living on earth will be urban dwellers.
As we mark World Habitat Day, these numbers remind us of a serious fact: while rapid urbanization brings tremendous opportunities for growth and prosperity, it has also posed unprecedented challenges to our cities—and the people who live in them.
Chief among these challenges is meeting fast-growing demand for infrastructure and basic services such as affordable housing and well-connected transport systems, as well as jobs—especially for the nearly one billion urban poor who are disproportionately affected by climate change and adverse socioeconomic conditions.
Such messages teach us how to keep hazards away from people (reducing existing risks) as well as how to keep people away from hazards (avoid creating new risks). On my latest trip to Japan, we hosted government officials from Armenia, Kyrgyz Republic, and Tajikistan as part of an experts’ visit focusing on disaster risk management, acting on Japan’s rich culture of passing on such decisive messages to future generations.
As a country that is particularly vulnerable to flooding, Malawians know that they cannot halt the forces of nature, but they can prepare and plan for their impacts – and they did. Supported by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) and the World Bank, the Government of Malawi undertook a series of community mapping activities in which it collected data about the environment for a flood risk modeling exercise and other preparedness activities. So in January 2015, when Malawi experienced its most devastating flood in a century, the data that its government collected was used to support recovery activities.
Robust and actionable information like this can help those at risk understand and prepare for hazards, saving lives and assets. However, even in this era of big data and hyper-connectivity, when one would think that every place on earth is already mapped in great detail, such information is often inaccessible, disparate, or altogether nonexistent. Even as recently as this month’s earthquake on the border of Tanzania and Uganda, people still scrambled for spatial information. Doing so in the moments after a disaster, though, is too late.
And while nature’s fury does not distinguish between urban and rural areas, a large majority of disaster losses are concentrated in cities, where they disproportionately affect the poor. This creates a great challenge for low and middle-income countries. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 200 million people—1/3 of the population—live in informal settlements, where most dwellings don’t comply with construction codes and home insurance is non-existent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, LAC’s informal districts also account for the majority of disaster-related deaths in the region.
Just consider a few simple statistics. On average, more than 1,000 lives are lost every year in the Philippines, with typhoons accounting for 74 percent of deaths, 62 percent of the total damages, and 70 percent of damages to agriculture.
Typhoon Haiyan struck in November 2013, known as Super Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines, one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded. The country though is also highly exposed to other hazards, including earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
Venice may seem like an unlikely location for an international development conference. But even though the Italian city is best known for its touristic appeal, it also turned out to be the perfect setting for the Understanding Risk Forum 2016, where representatives from 125 countries exchanged knowledge on disaster risk management and explored ways of adapting global lessons to their own local context.
At merely 1 meter above sea level, Venice has had its fair share of natural disasters, especially floods. In 1966, the record-high 194-cm flood had severe consequences on the Old Venice, causing an estimated $6 million worth of damage (1966 US dollars). Given the city’s touristic and historical significance to Italy and the world, protection from flood is a top priority.
That's why the Government of Italy has invested over €5.5 billion on the MOSE Project, which involves constructing 4 mobile barriers at the mouth of the water basin to the sea in order to better control high tide and prevent it from flooding the Old Venice. Each barrier consists of several energy-efficient flap gates that can be deployed quickly when high tide occurs, maintaining the ideal water level in the basin while safeguarding the natural ecosystem in the laguna area. Once the project is completed in 2018, it should fully protect the city, and allow future generations to admire the beauty of its glory days.
Too many times after a natural hazard strikes, public outcries follow once the level of devastation becomes clear. People wonder – and often rightly so – if the disaster could have been prevented. After the 2015 Nepal earthquake for example, years of investment in school buildings was wiped away in seconds because schools were not built to withstand earthquakes – often because people were not aware of the earthquake risk. Fortunately, it was a Saturday so the schools that collapsed did not also result in unimaginable human tragedy.
We’re witnessing an unprecedented uptick in record-breaking storms. In October last year, Hurricane Patricia came ashore in Mexico with record breaking 200 miles per hour winds. A few months later on the other side of the world, Cyclone Winston broke records for Pacific basin wind speeds, destroying parts of mainland Fiji with 180 miles per hour winds. More recently, Cyclone Fantala became the most powerful storm in the Indian Ocean ever recorded.
Experts agree that its activities by people which are increasing the severity of storms like these. Climate change isn’t just projected to increase the intensity of hurricanes and cyclones, but a whole other range of other natural hazards, like droughts, floods, storms, and heat waves.