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A disaster that does not happen saves lives and money

by Ilan Kelman | @IlanKelman | University College London (UCL)
Thursday, 13 October 2016 11:52 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A programme in Bangladesh showed an immediate payback of nearly $5 for every $1 spent on reducing risk

How do we prove the effectiveness of disaster risk reduction? It is hard to measure a disaster which does not happen.

But we are trying. Through a unique partnership of researchers and practitioners, our work in Bangladesh showed an immediate payback of almost $5 for every $1 spent on disaster risk reduction, while saving lives during a cyclone and quickly re-establishing livelihoods afterwards.

From 2013 to 2016, two Bangladeshi coastal communities in Patuakhali district, Nowapara and Pashurbunia, participated in the Vulnerability to Resilience (V2R) programme. It was implemented by the Bangladesh Red Crescent through funding and technical support from the British Red Cross and Swedish Red Cross.

Activities included cash-for-work for constructing and improving community access roads as well as cash for new livelihoods and livelihood diversification. Other work involved building latrines and tube-wells for freshwater while providing hygiene advice. Fishers were given safety equipment.

Training was provided for business development, market access, community mapping, first aid, search and rescue, and early warning. Although the poorest households were given special attention, community members across socio-economic classes were engaged.

Little such action had occurred before. V2R changed the ways in which the communities considered and acted on disaster risk reduction. Yet change or transformation in and of itself is not necessarily good. How do we prove the positive results?

We completed a benefit-cost analysis of the V2R work in these Bangladeshi communities, using discount rates. A discount rate assumes that gains today are less valuable in the future. Each year, the gains should be discounted by a certain percentage. This percentage, or discount rate, is arbitrary, but it permits gains from spending money now to be compared with potential gains from investing the money instead.

Even with the large discount rate of 12 percent, the benefit-cost ratio was 1.5 in 2026. For a more modest discount rate of 5 percent, the immediate payback of the project was $4.65 saved or earned for every $1 which the project cost.

This is just money. All sorts of estimates were made for the calculations. The people might never see the savings in cash. How do we really show the effectiveness of disaster risk reduction?

Just after V2R ended on April 30 2016, Cyclone Ruanu made landfall on Bangladesh’s south coast on 21 May 2016. The people in the V2R communities received warnings and evacuated, so no casualties were reported.

They returned afterwards to find that many of the new initiatives had withstood the storm and subsequent flooding from a broken embankment. Their new freshwater supply and latrines continued to function.

Livelihoods received little interruption, apart from agricultural fields being salinated by the storm surge. Many people switched to fishing while rehabilitating the land to continue cultivation.

V2R’s disaster risk reduction came through in theory and practice, displayed by the calculations and on-the-ground experience. It succeeded by focusing on root causes of vulnerability through shoring up sustainable livelihoods and basic services.

This work never ends. Disaster risk reduction is a continual process, not a one-off event. Although the people now have more skills, resources, and experience to reduce disaster risk, many external creators of vulnerability and disaster risk exist. For instance, a new seaport might be constructed nearby potentially leading to forced eviction, which could undermine the two communities’ efforts.

Bayes Ahmed of University College London, and Heather K Fehr and Manik Saha of the British Red Cross also contributed to this blog.