OPINION: As climate disasters grow, reducing vulnerability is key

by Debarati Guha-Sapir & Ilan Kelman | @IlanKelman | University College London (UCL)
Monday, 6 December 2021 14:19 GMT

Palm trees sway in the wind during the passage of Tropical Storm Fred in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic August 11, 2021. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

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

Deaths and losses from extreme weather can be limited – but it takes preparation and investment

By Debarati Guha-Sapir & Ilan Kelman

Debarati Guha-Sapir is a disaster epidemiologist at the University of Louvain and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Ilan Kelman is a risk, resilience and global health professor at University College London and the University of Agder.

Hundreds died in the European floods and U.S. hurricanes and fires during the summer of 2021 – disasters many linked to human-caused climate change.

Yet these disasters are really a stark reflection of increasing vulnerability, especially of those who already have the fewest opportunities.

Is current global warming actually leading to more disasters?

Disasters involving weather and climate account for perhaps 90% of the world’s recorded disasters these days. Meanwhile, disasters involving earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions are calculated as less frequent, although each one’s mortality can be very high.

Reported flood and storm disasters have each increased about three-fold in the past decade compared to 1980–89. Despite risk reduction efforts from organisations such as the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDDR) and the World Bank, reported numbers of people affected by storms in the last decade more than doubled compared to the 1980s and economic damages increased by a massive 600%.

Deaths due to floods have been increasing and have caused nearly 160% more deaths since 2000 compared to deaths in the 1980s.

These are unquestionably persuasive signals of worsening vulnerability, irrespective of changes to weather and climate.

Why is vulnerability increasing?

Prevailing international and national development policies encourage rampant urbanization creating wastelands of concrete car parks, industrial sites, and sub-standard dwellings, all ripe to generate torrential water runoff.

A recent U.S. study found that for each percentage point increase of impervious roads, car parks, and other surfaces, the largest flood each year (measured as average daily flow rate) increased on average by 3.3%.

Deforestation, constraining rivers and wetlands, and other ecosystem changes that serve global demand for primary materials also drive worsening floods and muddy deluges.

Then come those living in flimsy abodes in the vast favelas of Latin America or shanty towns of South Asia or rundown townships of Africa, who continue to face frequent flash floods that wash away their homes, belongings and increasingly neighbours.

Cyclone Nargis in Burma in 2008 killed over 130,000 people mainly due to weak government response and lack of village-level preparedness which caused extreme vulnerability. Massive deforestation and soil erosion also contributed.

Outdated and vulnerable infrastructure is another key failure in many recent flood, wildfire and hurricane disasters.

While insurance coverage, state aid programmes, evacuation options, and improved planning and construction are increasingly available, it is mainly the wealthy who have the resources to access them.

Shoddy infrastructure is easily damaged, warning information does not reach marginalised people, and the poorest have little scope to prepare or evacuate as they must focus on the day-to-day.

Heat waves have increased over four-fold in the last decade compared to the 1980s and are set to get worse in the short term. Peak heat-humidity periods are increasing in frequency and intensity.

Heat waves exceeding 40˚C with humidity exact terrible physical costs to agricultural laborers, construction workers, and women forced to sleep in unventilated rooms in which they cook.

We need to rapidly design low cost and locally appropriate adaptation measures for the most vulnerable by improving housing design, and imposing labour regulations, especially for occupations such as construction and work in cramped unventilated spaces like many garment factories.

In the end it is often human action that transforms climate events into deadly calamities.

Most vulnerability reduction actions at community levels are not expensive and do not need new money. But we do need to stop pouring money into policies that create disaster risks.

We spend far more for disaster response - over $120 billion a year - than we do for risk reduction directly, which is about $6 billion a year.

We must promote the pragmatic links that connect climate change action to disaster risk reduction and support people in their day-to-day lives.

This means reviewing and modifying development, agricultural, and industrial activities and incentives that we already know increase risk. It means strong evidence to understand effectiveness of what works at village and community levels to minimise the effects of all environmental hazards.

We require global engagement from everyone - the privileged, the literate, and the vehicle owners alongside the remote villagers without basic services, the daily toilers, and the urban poor crammed into informal settlements.