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Preparing for disasters saves lives and money

Tropical Cyclone Pam, a Category 5 storm, ripped through the island nation of Vanuatu on March 13 and 14. © UNICEF
Tropical Cyclone Pam hit the island nation of Vanuatu on March 13-14. © UNICEF

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.

Sadly, over the past 30 years, the world has lost more than 2.5 million people and almost $4 trillion because of similar natural disasters. More than three quarters of these deaths were in developing countries, and almost half of them in low-income countries.  
For example, in 2010, the earthquake in Haiti destroyed more than a decade of growth. In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan pushed nearly half a million Filipino households into destitution: Poverty rates rose to 56 percent in the worst affected areas. And over the past 16 months, the Ebola virus has killed nearly 10,000 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Getting to zero Ebola cases
We still have work to do to control the Ebola epidemic. People will continue to die and the economic consequences will be severe until we get to zero cases. In 2015, for example, the World Bank Group estimates that these three countries will forfeit $1.6 billion in economic growth because of the virus. Prior to the epidemic, they had some of the highest growth rates in the world; now their rates are expected to be near or below zero.  
Despite these massive tolls in lives and dollars, over the past two decades, the international community committed just under $110 billion to disaster relief, prevention and preparedness. This is a small sum when you consider that, every year, costs related to disaster recovery worldwide now average close to $200 billion. In addition, only a little more than 10 percent of disaster aid has funded prevention and preparedness. Compare this to Japan, a global leader in disaster risk management, which allocates about 80 percent of its disaster budget to preparedness.
The bottom line is that, to save lives and promote economic growth, we must continue to expand our understanding of how to manage disasters and deploy this knowledge aggressively. The government of Japan has supported critical work to expand expert knowledge and share its own expertise with the world. Prime Minister Abe and his cabinet have been our lead partner in this area and Japan’s continued support is essential if we are to help countries prepare for future disasters.
We must respond faster to disasters
One of the most important steps we can take to promote preparedness is to ensure the immediate availability of funding for disaster response before an event occurs. This will help us avoid one of the world’s failures in tackling Ebola, our slow response to the outbreak. So we do better the next time the World Bank Group and many partners are developing the concept of a pandemic emergency facility. Our goal is to create a financial instrument that can rapidly disburse massive funding within hours of an outbreak that meets certain objective criteria. 
Another goal of a pandemic facility is to promote greater country investments in preparedness. This means a global response capacity that is truly equal to the challenge of even the worst pandemic might look like this: Rapidly disbursing financial mechanisms, strong global technical coordination led by a much bolstered World Health Organization, and well-rehearsed interventions involving a host of other actors.  These could include corps of medical professionals; logistics experts; and transport, pharmaceutical and communications companies. The United Nations and support from other multilateral and private sector financial institutions would also be important.
But perhaps the most critical element of pandemic preparedness is the creation of strong health systems in every country. These systems must aim to offer universal health coverage, where everyone has access to essential health services and poverty is not a litmus test for care. Here, again, Japan has led the way, promoting universal health coverage globally. Ensuring access to health care for all is also a priority for both low and middle-income countries.
As the World Bank Group works with its partners to improve disaster risk management, we’ll be drawing on Japan’s experience in preparing for disasters and providing universal care. That accumulated wisdom has shown the world that taking the proper precautions can save thousands of lives as well as billions of dollars in lost economic growth. It also can help end extreme poverty.

This blog post originally appeared on LinkedIn.


Jim Yong Kim

Former President, World Bank Group

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