On a visit this week to the Japanese coastal area of Yuriage, Teerayut Horanont peered through glasses at the quiet landscape that gives way to the Pacific Ocean. He didn’t just see the landscape – he saw the town that once thrived there.
An augmented reality tool installed in the glasses provided a visual overlay of what the area looked like before the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami that devastated Yuriage and many other coastal communities in Japan.
World Bank Vice President and Special Envoy for Climate Change Rachel Kyte speaks from the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction underway in Sendai, Japan, about the need for greater investment in resilience. As the conference was taking place, a Category 5 cyclone swept across Vanuatu, leaving destruction in its wake.
It’s one of the harsh realities of today.
Just as representatives from around the globe began to gather in Sendai, Japan, for an international disaster risk conference, authorities in Vanuatu were issuing evacuation alerts with Cyclone Pam intent on a destructive path towards the Pacific island nation.
On the eve of the official opening of the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, three cyclones – including the ferocious Cyclone Pam – were casting a menacing shadow over the Asia Pacific region.
It underscores a simple point. The threats posed by natural disasters are on the rise.
Three days after a 7.6 magnitude earthquake jolted Northern Pakistan, I boarded a helicopter to assist the local government in surveying the incredible destruction of homes and lives. Entire villages had been wiped out, and the area’s mountainous terrain made rescue operations all but impossible in many places. I wondered to myself how my country – or any country – could truly recover from a disaster as earth-shattering as this.
That concern turned to anxiety as I looked up to see black storm clouds form ahead. Helicopters that had been in front of us were now turning around. Surely we would turn back, too, but the pilot insisted his skills and experience would carry us through the storm. They did, and that 2005 reconstruction effort in Pakistan became a defining moment in my understanding of recovery.
Over the course of the next decade of disaster and response, I and many others working in this space, came to understand that damage and needs assessments alone are not enough to address recovery and reconstruction. Without an overall recovery strategy and the right institutions to carry it forward, a country’s post-disaster efforts are all too often ad hoc and improvised.
We realized that recovery was something to plan for before disasters strike.
Sometimes the impacts of disasters seem difficult to predict, such as when the heavy snow that set off deadly avalanches in Afghanistan this winter also damaged transmission lines, disrupting the flow of electricity imported from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and resulting in power outages in Kabul. Other times the consequences seem almost inevitable, for example the likelihood of a devastating earthquake in the Ganges Basin of India, Nepal and Bangladesh within our lifetime.
There are, however, tools and models that allow us to determine the potential impacts of a disaster before they happen, and provide decision-makers with information they can use to reduce the potential impact.
“What would it take to reduce disaster risk in your country by 50 percent by 2030?” This question was posed to a gathering of small island developing states leaders and representatives during the Understanding Risk forum in London in 2014.
At the time, it probably seemed like an overwhelming question. Around US$650 million in international financing is currently available annually to build resilience in small states. However, for many countries, reducing their disaster risk by 50 percent is an attainable goal.
Without concerted action, the world will one day see a megadisaster—a disaster resulting in over 1 million casualties.
The forces of population growth and rapid urbanization are dramatically increasing exposure to disaster risk. Over 600 million people, for example, live in the Ganges Basin of India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Due to the meeting of the tectonic plates with the Indian subcontinent shifting under the Eurasian continent, this area is at a large risk of seismic activity. And indeed, the Ganges Basin has seen earthquakes over magnitude 7.0 in the past 500 years, as illustrated by the graphic above.
As practitioners, we can help reduce disaster risk and build resilience to potential catastrophes through smart development practices. These practices, however, require targeted research that can inform which levers to move, and how to move them. Sadly, this kind of research is difficult to come by in the disaster risk management community, and harder still to communicate to those that need it most.
By Francis Ghesquiere and Olivier Mahul
This week, the Resilience Dialogue, bringing together representatives from developing countries, donor agencies and multilateral development banks, will focus on financing to build resilience to natural disasters.
There is growing recognition that resilience is critical to preserving hard won development gains. The share of development assistance supporting resilience has grown dramatically in recent years. New instruments have emerged in particular to help client countries deal with the economic shock of natural disasters. In this context, an important question is which financial instruments best serve the needs of vulnerable countries? Only by customizing instruments and tools to the unique circumstances of our clients, will we maximize development return on investments. Clearly, low-income countries with limited capacity may not be able to use financial instruments the same way middle-income countries can. Small island developing states subject to financial shocks where loss can exceed their annual GDP face vastly different challenges than large middle-income countries trying to smooth public expenditures over time or safeguard low-income populations against disasters.
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Standing atop a disused amphitheater in a disused airforce base, we could see over the surrounding area. On the right, a sea of shacks nuzzled together in hope and desperation. On the left, stretches of cracked concrete with just one shack here, one shack there.
The emptying expanse to the left was the story of success. More than three years after the massive earthquake that shattered so much of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, rental subsidies were moving households quickly out of camps to houses in the community.