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Why disasters last longer than you think

by Katie Peters and Emily Wilkinson | @katiepetersodi | Overseas Development Institute
Wednesday, 12 October 2016 16:56 GMT

People wade through a flooded street while Hurricane Matthew passes, in Cite-Soleil in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, October 4, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

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

Disasters are repeatedly knocking people back into poverty – this need not be the case

The suffering that continues long after disasters strike, is not inevitable. International Disaster Reduction Day calls for a renewed focus on reducing disaster mortality, but the impact on survivors is of equal concern. Much more can be done to ensure peoples’ livelihoods are protected and action is taken in advance of a crisis to be better prepared.

Hurricane Matthew has taken some 1,000 lives in Haiti and the U.S. – the bulk of them in Haiti – in the strongest storm to hit the region in a decade. As families mourn the loss of loved ones, what was for many Haitians an already tough existence is about to get tougher.

But the ‘disaster’ was not over when the storm hit the country last week. As those witness to Matthew will testify, it’s the aftermath when things really get tough. Haitians now face food shortages, dehydration and cholera as the government and aid workers struggle to deal with an escalating crisis. 

What happens next? Fears of the knock-on effects of a natural hazard are something Haitians are all too familiar with. Nearly 10,000 people died in the cholera outbreak following the 2010 earthquake, and the long term impact on poverty is still being calculated. Efforts to reduce poverty in the face of extreme events are a long-term game for Haiti and the aid industry. 

’Resilient’ poverty reduction is challenged by global warning as we witness ever more frequent and intense climate extremes in parts of the world. Disasters undermine development and hit the poor hardest; and it is the very people who find it most difficult to recover. 

It is estimated that 2.3 million people were pushed below the poverty line as a result of Super Typhoon Haiyan which hit the Philippines in 2013.

We have good ideas about how to build people’s resilience to disasters. Ensuring individuals and communities have the capacity to face the risks they confront as well as take action to prepare and have savings and safety nets to absorb shocks, are all important. So too is having the capacity to adapt over the longer term to changes in the climate and increasingly frequent extreme events.

Diversifying incomes and investing in drought-resistant seeds have proven effective in helping people to adapt to worsening droughts.

Only by taking into account the full impacts of disaster and taking action to reduce these risks will we achieve the global commitments to a better world – as articulated by governments’ commitments to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Across the globe, people are making improvements in their lives to lift themselves out of poverty, but disasters are repeatedly knocking them back. This need not always be the case. 

In the Indian state of Bihar, the use of satellite technology has helped improve the accuracy of flood mapping and subsequently the decisions made by the State Disaster Management Authority in preparing and responding to flash floods in Nepal. This helps give people crucial time needed to protect themselves and their belongings, before it’s too late. 

Technological advances can contribute to better risk management, but for some shocks, solutions are harder to come by. With more frequent and intense shocks on the horizon, many disasters are revealing that world over people need to get better prepared for what’s to come. Recent heatwave events in India are testament to that

Those living below the poverty line who are most affected, must be prioritised for support. Not only when disaster first hits, but over the longer term – including preparing for the inevitable next event. This is an important consideration for Disaster Risk Reduction Day. 


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