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There is nothing ‘Natural’ in Natural Disasters

Joaquin Toro's picture

In the last few months we have witnessed "natural events" that have resulted in huge disasters with tragic consequences. From the November Rio de Janeiro mudslides to the March Japan tsunami and, more recently and closer to home, the tornadoes that devastated large parts of Missouri, 'natural disasters' are becoming household names.

That is, what some people call "natural" disasters. Let me explain my disagreement with this definition. I don't believe there is anything "natural" in catastrophic events that cause death and destruction. If you allow me to use poetic license, I would say that "natural disasters" became extinct about the same time as dinosaurs –well before the planet became populated by humans. The only thing 'natural' about these types of events is the event itself: a volcanic eruption, an earthquake, a hurricane, floods, etc.

Real disasters –with tragic consequences- happen when we allow the unplanned growth of cities and infrastructure without regard of their interaction with the environment. As a matter of fact, we have built cities on river banks, on steep slopes almost defying the laws of gravity; we have interfered with nature felling forests and vegetation.

Let me ask: Is it a disaster for society when a Cat5 hurricane runs out of steam in the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean? Is it a catastrophe when a powerful earthquake strikes in the middle of the Saharan Dessert? Or when snow storms hit the Andean peaks? I don't think so.

By contrast, an earthquake like Haiti's or the mudslides that hit the heavily populated bur precarious hillsides of Brazil's Regiao Serrana, are catastrophes with a tragic toll of thousands of casualties, as we have witnessed.

This is no surprise. One third of Latin America's rural population —about 150 million people— live in slums that are highly prone to disasters, according to UN data.

We need to make a bigger effort to emphasize that the real issue behind "natural disasters" is lack of planning and the region's development agenda lagging behind. The media can help in this endeavor instead of sometimes just focusing on the "catastrophic" side of the news and the "unpredictability" of disasters.

This kind of coverage has provided ammunition to those who think –wrongly- that prevention is not justified because disasters are beyond our control. Having said that, I have to acknowledge the DRM work being done by many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The World Bank is supporting these efforts with technical assistance and financial resources for disaster risk prevention in countries such as Haiti, Brazil, El Salvador, and Peru, to mention just a few recent examples. These have implemented safe housing and infrastructure programs, disaster risk management training for first responders, and preventive financial mechanisms such as the Catastrophe Deferred Drawdown Option (CAT DDO).

Disasters hit everywhere, anytime. They make no distinctions based on race, nationality or social backgrounds. But there's one underlying theme to all catastrophes: their impact is disproportionately felt among the poor and in developing countries. Here's the reason: Our own data shows that 95 percent of all deaths caused by disasters take place in developing economies. Lack of good urban planning and affordable housing force the poor to move to the cities' most vulnerable areas. This is where our governments and citizens have to own up to their responsibility. There are no more excuses to continue arguing that disasters are "natural" events or Nature's punishments.

It is time to cast aside such stone-age logic and address a very pressing challenge. Sustainable development strategies need to be setup across the globe and in particular in developing economies.

Only by avoiding new risks, reducing existing ones and adapting to climate change, we would be able to make sure that growth, our cities and especially our lives can look forward to a promising future.