Disasters needn't end in vast human, econ losses -World Bank

by Nita Bhalla | @nitabhalla | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 9 December 2011 11:58 GMT
By 2050 more than 1.5 billion people worldwide will be at risk from natural disasters such as earthquakes, cyclones or floods

NEW DELHI, Dec 9 (AlertNet) - More than 1.5 billion people will be at risk from calamities such as earthquakes, cyclones or floods by 2050, but human casualties and economic losses can be minimised if nations invest now in disaster prevention, a World Bank report said.

Experts say most countries are not acting fast enough to take steps to protect their people from disasters, and that climate change will mean more frequent and severe natural hazards in the future.

"Around 1.5 billion people in less than 40 years are going to be exposed to natural hazards," World Bank Managing Director Mahmoud Mohieldin said at the launch of the "Natural Hazards, Unnatural disasters" report on Thursday.

"But this kind of exposure should not make them vulnerable if proper investments are put in place," he added.

Earthquakes, storms and other hazards killed about 3.3 million people between 1970 and 2010, an annual average of 82,500 deaths worldwide.

Economic losses from property damage alone as a result of disasters have also been significant -- totalling $2,300 billion between 1970 and 2008, said the report.

Recent major disasters such as the Haiti earthquake in January 2010 killed more than 300,000 people, while in Pakistan later the same year floods resulted in $43 billion in economic damages. Pakistan has again faced severe flooding this year.

INFORMATION, INCENTIVES, INFRASTRUCTURE

The World Bank report urged governments to collect and share information such as hazard data so that better research, planning and prevention can occur.

Currently, it said, efforts to gather such information were "inconsistent" and "insufficient" and many governments resisted sharing such data.

"Sometimes 'security, commercial and defense' reasons are invoked, but only a few are legitimate," said the report, adding that "sometimes commercial interests take precedent over public-good aspects."

For example, it said, even though the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has updated coastal flood maps for the U.S. Gulf, it cannot get coastal communities to accept them because the information would reduce property prices.

The report said governments could also give incentives to encourage proper construction and urban planning, as more villagers migrate to already burgeoning cities, increasing the hazard risks to greater numbers of people.

"Poor households prefer to have easy access to jobs, even though this may imply living in slums or riverbanks prone to flooding or on hilltops subject to mudslides," it said.

"(The government) could include making land available in safer locations – along with adequate and reliable public transport and other services so that people remain connected to their jobs."

The report said much prevention could be dealt with through updating and maintaining existing infrastructure such as drains, bridges and roads as well as investing in new and innovative, yet not necessarily expensive, ones.

Drainage ditches, for example, are not adequately maintained once built and become clogged, so rains result in floods that drown the poor, said the report.

It cited Kuala Lumpur's Stormwater Management and Road Tunnel (SMART) – a 9.7-km underground tunnel used to ease congestion in Malaysia's capital, but which also doubles up as a drain during floods – as cost effective at $514 million.

PREVENTION PAYS

The report’s team leader said the mentality of governments and foreign donors was to respond in the aftermath, rather than provide funds to put in place preventative steps.

About 20 percent of total humanitarian aid between 2000 and 2008 was devoted to disaster relief and response, while less than 1 percent was spent on prevention annually over the same period.

"For far too long, the disaster field has been dominated by relief, recovery and reconstruction after a disaster strikes," said Apurva Sanghi, senior economist at the World Bank's Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery.

"There has been not enough on prevention and preparedness beforehand."

He cited the example of Mozambique where the government in 2000 asked donors for less $3 million to prepare for anticipated flooding, but it received not even half the amount.

Yet, after floods struck later that year, the same donor community ploughed in over $100 million in relief alone and pledged another $450 million for recovery and reconstruction.

Sanghi said his report made a strong case to governments and their finance ministers, international donors and taxpayers that prevention steps were worth investing in.

"The main message of this report is prevention pays, if done right."

(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)

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