SENDAI, Japan – Without better preparation for disasters – whether they be earthquakes and tidal waves, extreme weather events, or future pandemics – we put lives and economies at risk. We also have no chance to be the first generation in human history that can end extreme poverty.
Just a few days ago, the world was again reminded of our vulnerability to disasters, after Tropical Cyclone Pam, one of the most powerful storms ever to make landfall, devastated the islands of Vanuatu. Some reports found that as much as 90 percent of the housing in Port Vila was badly damaged. When the cyclone hit, I was in Sendai for the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, which took place only a few days after the fourth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. That quake and subsequent tsunami tragically resulted in more than 15,000 deaths and caused an estimated $300 billion in damage.
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.
Modeled 2012 population in Guatemala at a spatial resolution of 100 m2
Inside the World Bank, the number of people passionate about using spatial data for development speaks to the relevance of spatial datasets in supporting critical decision making. In an effort to use spatial data more strategically, we recently conducted an informal poll among several Bank units and some partner institutions to find out what types of spatial data are most relevant to development professionals.
This survey found that the spatial distribution of the population was a key data layer needed by Bank staff. The results of the survey showed that that while national level data are useful, subnational detail on administrative boundaries, trade & transport infrastructure, population distribution and socio-economic data down to the city level are just as critical to the majority of respondents.
“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.
By Stéphane Hallegatte, Mook Bangalore, and Francis Samson Nkoka
Malawi is no stranger to significant flooding. In January 2012, floods affected more than 10,000 people and caused US$3 million worth of damage to households and infrastructure. But this year’s floods are much larger in magnitude, even unprecedented.
Beginning in early January, heavy rains triggered significant flooding in the southern and eastern districts of the country. The districts which experienced the largest impacts include Nsanje and Chikwawa in the south and Phalombe and Zomba in the east. So far, the flooding has affected more than 600,000 people, displaced over 170,000, and damaged agricultural crops covering more than 60,000 hectares.
While aggregate numbers and economic cost indicate the seriousness of the event, it is critical to look at exactly who is affected in the country. We have found that the poorest are on the front line.
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.