New disaster risk reduction strategies needed rather than “rearranging deckchairs on Titanic” - experts

by Stella Dawson | | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Sunday, 13 April 2014 15:30 GMT

Pedro Lacandazo, 57, explains how seawater brought by the storm surge from super typhoon Haiyan in November 2013 flooded his house up to the ceiling and separated him from his family in San Joaquin town in Palo, Leyte province, central Philippines. Picture taken December 23, 2013. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

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“We are doing too much rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic rather than dealing with what will be hitting us,” said Borge Brende, foreign affairs minister for Norway

WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Countries must develop new strategies for preventing damage from natural disasters and invest in rapid-response systems so that they can bounce back quickly after catastrophe hits, development officials and policymakers said.  

The number of natural disasters has doubled in the last 30 years, economic costs have quadrupled in size, and low-income countries and small islands are at risk of having their entire economy wiped if disaster hits, according to the World Bank.

Without a new strategy, the number of lives lost and the economic costs will escalate at an even faster rate, officials said.  For instance by 2050, 1.5 billion people will live in cities exposed to major storms and earthquakes, double the number today. “We must make this part of a comprehensive policy to be prepared for tougher weather and more natural disasters that are coming out of climate change in the years ahead,” Borge Brende, foreign affairs minister for Norway, during World Bank spring meetings, which wrapped here in Washington this weekend.  

“We are doing too much rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic rather than dealing with what will be hitting us,” he said.

For every $100 spent today on official development aid, only 40 cents goes to disaster prevention and preparedness, a sum that is clearly inadequate given the increasing frequency of natural disasters, according to Rachel Kyte, special envoy for climate change at the World Bank.  

The damage is getting worse. The World Bank says 2011 was the costliest year on record for disasters at $380 billion, and between 1980 and 2011 over 70 percent of disaster-related losses were weather related.


Arsenio Balisacan, secretary of socio-economic planning in the Philippines, said his country learned two important lessons from Typhoon Haiyan, the powerful tropical cyclone that hit on Nov. 8 last year killing over 6,000 people, the deadliest ever in his country. 

Firstly, invest in ways of limiting the damage – be it stronger buildings or early warning systems so people can move to safer ground; and secondly, to begin reconstruction early. 

Standard disaster protocol calls for emergency relief, followed by a thorough needs assessment before reconstruction begins – a policy international aid agencies attempted to follow after Haiyan. 

But Balisacan said that would have compounded the disaster in the Philippines.  The damage was so widespread, it would have taken three to six months to conduct a comprehensive evaluation, long enough to devastate the country economically.

 “What was needed was to get the early recovery and reconstruction (going) as quickly as possible to reduce the costs, or the efforts to move the economy onto a higher growth trajectory would have been undermined,” he said.


Japan has invested in comprehensive early warning systems to alert its citizens to impending danger from earthquakes, tsunamis or other natural events, and its schools are equipped so they can readily be converted into shelters, said Kiyoshi Kodera, vice-president of Japan’s International Cooperation Agency. 

Educating citizens on how to respond in an emergency also is crucial, Kodera told a forum on disaster resilience on Friday on the sidelines of the World Bank/International Monetary Fund meetings.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s finance minister, backed these priorities.  “The incremental value of spending a dollar in resilience coupled with responding quickly is the best way forward,” she said.

Among the other proposals discussed at the forum were:

  • Disaster insurance pools at country level: the African Union has partnered with World Food Programme to launch a country insurance risk pool, which can release up to $30 million within six days of a disaster, faster than waiting for humanitarian relief. Ngozi said it has raised $150 million in capital and has 22 member countries so far. The Philippines said it is investigating insurance pools.
  • Local adaptations to climate change: the Sahel region is replacing flat-top roofs with curved ones to capture rainfall. Bangladesh has reduced livestock losses by replacing chickens with ducks, which can swim in floods, said Kyte.  
  • Cash handouts are quicker and more efficient to deliver than blankets or cooking pots, which are bulky to transport, and may not meet a family’s most urgent need by the time they arrive, said Justine Greening, U.K. minister for international development.
  • Keep emergency supplies stocked for quick disaster response.

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said humanitarian aid already is stretched to the breaking point and unless national and international development agencies rethink their approach and focus more attention on ways to reduce the toll from natural disasters, the cost in human lives will worsen.

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