By Sophie Hares
CANCUN, Mexico, May 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Afghanistan has improved its capacity to respond to natural disasters but needs a drastic overhaul of its infrastructure to cope better with devastating earthquakes, floods and landslides, a top official said on Wednesday.
Improving roads and transportation along with irrigation, education and medical care are critical priorities in the conflict-wracked nation where two out of five people live in poverty, said State Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak, speaking on the sidelines of a major United Nations conference on disasters.
"All infrastructure we've built is not resilient enough to resist different shocks, either natural or unfortunately security situations on the ground," Barmak told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Although Afghanistan has invested heavily in its infrastructure over the last 15 years, the impact of disasters has caused deep economic losses, he said.
Afghanistan needs to undertake a sweeping assessment of its critical infrastructure to determine how much is at risk and can be upgraded, he said.
He said a World Bank report, due to be released next month, identifies the major risks facing the nation and will form the framework of a disaster risk reduction program.
Barmak, who did not put a figure on the potential price of an infrastructure overhaul, said the cost would pay off in terms of reduced losses from disasters.
According to a copy of the World Bank's disaster risk summary, natural hazards are "exacerbating vulnerability and poverty" in the country where the poorest families are almost twice as likely to suffer the impacts of natural disasters than are wealthier households.
Flooding is the most frequent disaster, causing average damages of $54 million U.S. a year, while earthquake damages were estimated at $80 million a year.
More than 20,000 people have been killed by natural hazards since 1980, the report said. Half of them died since 1990 in earthquakes.
Steps taken to decentralized authority have improved disaster response, and "we are better prepared compared to year or two year ago," said Barmak.
But he added: "That doesn't mean we have well-built institutional capacity to cope with different type of disasters more strategically and professionally."
He estimated it could take a decade for the government to have sufficient specialized, professional institutions to cope with large-scale disasters.
While development experts frequently promote the use of insurance mechanisms to help protect critical infrastructure and reduce exposure to risk, Barmak said it would take years for such a concept to catch on in Afghanistan.
Insurance is not a likely option in a nation that lacks the means to track public- and private-sector spending or calculate an annual Gross Domestic Product, he said.
"We have not been yet connected or integrated into the global economic system," he said.
Running until Friday, the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Cancun is the first major meeting since the 15-year Sendai framework was hammered out in Japan in 2015, setting ambitious targets for governments to cut deaths and economic losses from disasters by 2030.
The Sendai targets also include limiting damage to infrastructure and disruption to basic services and widening access to early warning systems and public disaster risk information.
(Reporting by Sophie Hares, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst )
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