We are reminded, increasingly frequently, of nature's potentially destructive power. Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, or the earthquake in Sichuan province of China, left hundreds of thousands of people dead and millions homeless.
Visiting these sites recently, I saw shattered lives and devastation that will take years to repair. As catastrophe piles on catastrophe, we could be forgiven for concluding that humanity is the helpless victim of nature. Yet that would be tragically wrong. Our capacity to cope with natural disasters is, in fact, much greater than we realize.
Almost as dangerous as the cyclones or earthquakes themselves is the myth that the destruction and deaths they cause are somehow unavoidable, the inevitable result of natural calamity. True, we cannot prevent the events themselves. But we can determine our response--and, through our actions, either compound disasters or diminish them.
The difference is preparedness and prevention. This may be a hard truth, for it emphasizes foresight and advance planning, and not merely the emergency relief that dominates headlines when crisis hits. Experts in “disaster risk reduction,” as they call it, specialize in limiting humankind's vulnerability. By taking the right steps, in advance, we can save lives and livelihoods that would otherwise be lost.
Consider Bangladesh--like Myanmar, a densely populated low-lying delta, vulnerable to storms. Cyclone Bhola in 1970 claimed as many as half a million lives. After another 140,000 perished from a 1991 cyclone, Bangladesh put in place an extensive early warning system, coupled with robust programms for community-based disaster preparedness, evacuation, and mitigation. When Cyclone Sidr hit in 2007, the deaths numbered not in the hundred of thousands but just over 4,000. Myanmar, which had not seen a cyclone of Nargis's power in living memory, had no such arrangements in place.
Other developing countries are following suit. Typhoon-prone Philippines and Madagascar have shown that small but prescient investments in building, planning and training can yield remarkable results. Community-based projects in Nepal and India's Uttar Pradesh have used risk-mapping to retrofit schools against earthquakes, while simultaneously training local builders in techniques of disaster-resilient construction.
Education is key. In the Philippines, teachers, students and parents receive instruction in basic principles of risk mitigation and preparedness. Thailand is turning students into agents of disaster risk reduction, spreading a culture of prevention into the community while teaching children strategies for protecting themselves. Latin American and Caribbean nations lead the way in safeguarding hospitals and health facilities, so that when disaster strikes the doctors and clinics can work when needed most.
All this is now more crucial than ever. With climate change, the number and intensity of weather-related disasters will increase. Losses (human and financial) nearly doubled from 2006 to 2007. For the poorest countries, obviously, the devastation can be especially crippling: the loss of homes, jobs and educational prospects traps people in poverty. Hurricane Mitch, in 1998, swept away decades of development in Honduras over the course of just a few hours.
We know what to do. All countries, from the richest to the poorest, should build disaster risk reduction into their development and poverty reduction plans. For instance, incorporating comprehensive disaster protection into new health facilities and schools would add only an estimated 4 percent to their cost.
There are many possibilities for coordinated global action. International donors should support the trust funds established to help poor countries cope with natural disasters, such as those set up by the World Bank and the United Nations. The Hyogo Framework for Action, negotiated in 2005 in the wake of the tsunami, sets out priorities for disaster risk reduction and calls upon the international community to take practical steps to make communities safer. These include strengthening flood prevention measures and early warning systems, and applying relevant building standards to protect critical infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and homes. We must also protect precious ecosystems--coral reefs and mangrove forests, for example--that act as natural storm barriers.
With the annual hurricane season upon, us, we all hope that disaster will not strike. But it will, as we know, and then we will count the dead and rush to the aid of those who survive. Let us remember, though, that it need not necessarily be so.