In his “The People of the Abyss,” novelist Jack London describes in grim detail a devastating storm that rocked London in the early 20th century. Residents suffered terribly—some losing as much as £10,000, a ruinous sum in 1902—but none lost more than the city’s poorest.
Natural disasters are devastating to all affected; however, not everyone experiences them the same way. A dollar in losses does not mean to a rich person what it does a poor person, who may live at subsistence level or lack the means to rebound and rebuild after disaster strikes. Be it a drought or flood, the poor are always hit harder than their wealthier counterparts.
This disparity was closely examined in the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) report, Unbreakable: Building the Resilience of the Poor in the Face of Natural Disasters. Unbreakable recommended a range of policies to help countries reduce poverty and build resilience, providing cutting-edge analysis on how disaster risk management (DRM) and well-designed development can alleviate poverty and risk in 117 countries.
The analysis demonstrates clearly that protecting the poor against natural hazards is a moral, economic, and social imperative. The poor can lose everything to disaster, and not just money. After Hurricane Mitch hit Nicaragua in 1998, for example, child malnourishment among poor households spiked by nearly 9%. And child labor jumped 5.6% as Nicaraguan families grew desperate to make ends meet, lacking any other way to cope with the losses from the hurricane.
Left unaddressed, the lack of efficient tools for the poor to cope with losses drive up the toll of natural disasters. Unbreakable estimates annual disaster losses to exceed $500 billion a year—outstripping all other estimates by as much as 60%.
Fortunately, there are common-sense measures governments can take today to protect their most vulnerable citizens against the consequences of adverse weather events. They can first reduce risks and prevent hazards from becoming disasters with investments in infrastructure, dikes, and through appropriate land-use policies and building regulations. These efforts must be specifically targeted to protect the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, not just those with higher-value assets.
But, equally important is to acknowledge that not all disasters can be avoided and that we also need to build the ability of the population to cope with disasters, and to recover rapidly from shocks. This includes early warning systems, improved access to personal banking, insurance policies, and social protection systems (like cash transfers and public works programs).
These measures make not only good sense but also good economics: they could help countries and communities save $100 billion a year and reduce the human cost of disasters by 20%. If Mali, for example, were to introduce scalable safety nets to cover its poorest citizens, the country’s disaster losses would shrink by 25%.
Since Unbreakable was released, GFDRR has published two additional appendix books providing detailed results from the analysis. The first appendix book provides country profiles for the 117 countries analyzed. These profiles provide an integrated framework to discuss and compare options to reduce risks to well-being, and improve communication and collaboration between governments, local authorities, as well as other entities charged with social protection, building norms, and urban planning.
The second appendix book lists the top 15 countries where each of the policies considered in the Unbreakable analysis is the most efficient to reduce risks. This shows interesting patterns. For instance, building basic (or adaptive) social protection systems is particularly attractive in Sub-Saharan Africa. This reflects the high level of inequality and poverty in the region, combined with the fact that most poor people are not covered by any social safety net currently in Africa. As a result, the consequences of shocks are not shared across the population the way they are in other regions.
It will hopefully foster dialogue between different sectors, bringing together experts and agencies in charge of disaster risk management with other experts and agencies who can contribute to building resilience even if disaster risk management is not their main mandate, such as those in charge of social affairs, labors, or financial inclusion. This, in turn, will ensure that development, poverty reduction, and DRM are integrated into a resilient and sustainable development strategy that benefits the poorest citizens.
So this analysis highlights priorities for action that are economically efficient, but do not forget the impacts of small losses for poor families.
Strengthened social protection could dramatically reduce disaster losses in Sub-Saharan Africa.
White stars show countries where strengthening social protection systems is particularly efficient to reduce the impact of natural disasters on people’s well-being, in relative terms. For instance, increasing social transfers to 33 percent of the income of poor people in Angola, Niger or Mali would reduce well-being losses due to disasters by more than 20 percent. Orange stars show countries where this policy is particularly efficient to reduce well-being losses in absolute terms – these countries are mostly those with very high risk levels, such as Colombia, the Philippines, or Bangladesh.