The link between poverty and disasters is becoming clearer – new research shows that extreme weather events alone are pushing up to 26 million people into poverty every year. With forces like climate change, urban expansion, and population growth driving this trend, annual losses have passed more than $500 billion annually, and show no signs of slowing.
With limited time and resources, however, adequate preparedness for these common events is often neglected in developing countries. The result is a pattern of deficient recovery that is imperiling sustainable development, and leaving millions of the most vulnerable behind.
How many school children can be endangered by the schools themselves? The answer was over 600,000 in metropolitan Lima alone.
In the region, fraught with frequent seismic activity, nearly two-thirds of schools were highly vulnerable to damage by earthquakes. Working with the Peruvian Ministry of Education (MINEDU), the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) conducted a risk assessment that ultimately helped make an estimated 2.5 million children safer and paved the way for a $3.1 billion national risk-reduction strategy.
Whether it is building safer schools or deploying early warning systems, disaster risk management is an integral part of caring for our most vulnerable, combating poverty, and protecting development gains.
Social safety nets – predictable cash grants to poor households often in exchange for children going to school or going for regular health check-ups – have become one of the most effective poverty reduction strategies, helping the poor and vulnerable cope with crises and shocks. Each year, safety net programs in developing countries lift an estimated 69 million people living in absolute poverty and uplifting some 97 million people from the bottom 20 percent – a substantial contribution in the global fight against poverty.
Along the beach in Mondouku, Côte d'Ivoire, a group of fishermen have just returned with their catch. Many of them come from neighboring Ghana, and they tell us that they come to the Ivorian part of the coast because there are more fish here. Still, they explain that the fish are smaller in size and number compared to previous years. The beach they are sitting on is lined with small hotels and cabanas destroyed in a storm surges over the past few years. A bit further down the coast, near the Vridi Canal, we speak with Conde Abdoulaye, who runs the lobster restaurant that his father ran before him. Even at low tide, the water laps against the steps of the restaurant and a retaining wall which he has rebuilt numerous times. He says he knows it is inevitable that at some point the sea will swallow his restaurant, and he will have to leave. He blames the canal for most of the beach erosion, but also acknowledges that changing weather patterns and increasing storms have contributed to the damage.
Intense drought can devastate a country. Severe flooding can be catastrophic. Dealing with both at the same time? That’s just another day for too many countries around the world that struggle to accurately predict weather- and climate-related disasters while simultaneously dealing with their effects.
Today, World Meteorological Day recognizes the benefits of accurate forecasting and improved delivery of hydromet services for the safety of lives and economies. Hydrological and meteorological (or “hydromet”) hazards – weather, water, and climate extremes – are responsible for 90 percent of total disaster losses worldwide. Getting accurate, timely predictions of these hazards into the hands of decision-makers and the public can save lives, while generating at least three dollars’ worth of socio-economic benefits for every one dollar invested in weather and climate services – a win-win. But less than 15 years ago, even the small amount of hydromet investment that existed was fragmented, with little hope of producing sustainable results.
Volcanic eruptions capture the imagination with their awe-inspiring power, but why don’t they capture the attention of decision makers and development professionals working to build resilient communities? People visit Pompeii in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, and see the once thriving community destroyed within minutes from a major past eruption, but it does not resonate with their day-to-day lives. We see spectacular footage of erupting volcanoes in the media, but we rarely think about what it means for communities who live within the reach of the multiple volcanic hazards that can occur during eruptions.
This wasn’t always the case. For 11 years from 1980, volcanic eruptions were at the forefront of the minds of those working in disaster risk management. At the opening of the decade, Mt. St. Helens violently erupted, claiming the lives of 57 and causing over USD1 billion in damage in the USA. Two years later, El Chichon erupted in Mexico killing at least 2,000. In 1985, a very minor eruption of Nevada del Ruiz volcano triggered a massive deadly mudflow (lahar) that killed 23,000 people in the town of Armero, Colombia. A year later, 1,700 people were killed in their sleep by volcanic gases from Lake Nyos volcano in Cameroon.
In the aftermath of the earthquake that struck Nepal in April 2015, Santoshi Rana of Bihani, a social venture working with elderly community members in Kathmandu, noticed that many efforts engaged the youth in relief and recovery activities. “Our elderly were completely left out of the equation, and were treated as passive beneficiaries in need of care.” So she took to the Internet to see what resources she could find. She came across a World Bank-Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) report, “Elders Leading the Way to Resilience,” which assessed the impact of Ibasho café, an elder-led recovery effort in Ofunato, Japan, following the Great East Japan Earthquake (GEJE) in 2011.
Ibasho: a Japanese approach to community resilience
In Ofunato, elder community members planned and built the Ibasho Café, which serves as a hub to restore the fabric of a community badly damaged by the GEJE disaster. Ibasho Café is an informal gathering place that brings the community together. All generations connect in that space, with children coming to read books in the English library, older people teaching the young how to make traditional foods, younger people helping their elders navigate computer software, etc. With the elderly actively engaged in the operation of the Ibasho café, the place helps build social capital and resilience, while changing people’s mindsets about aging. The café runs as a sustainable business and, over time, has developed a noodle shop, an organic farm, and a farmers market to further support its operation.
In 2014-2015, GFDRR supported the documentation of the Ibasho experience in Japan. Learning about this experience, Santoshi realized the elders and women of her community could also lead the way, and reached out to Emi Kiyota, head of Ibasho, the NGO that facilitated the process in Ofunato.
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.
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.
Small Island States are particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change and natural disasters. In fact, 2/3 of the countries that have been most severely impacted by disasters are small island nations, which have lost between 1 and 9% of GDP annually due to weather extremes and other catastrophes. The severity and recurrence of disasters makes it hard for those countries to recover, and seriously undermines ongoing development efforts.