11 May, 2011

Disaster related to natural events is up but governance lags

Sergio Abranches

Over the last seven years disasters related to extreme natural events have hit all regions of the world. There was not a single year without a major disaster. A significant amount has been related to extreme weather events. Still a majority of the vulnerable countries in the developed and emerging world are not adequately investing in disaster prevention and reduction.

Several new studies are providing evidence of the relationship between rising risk of disasters and climate change. The so-called ‘problem of attribution’, i.e. of relating a series of specific events to a changing climate is becoming less relevant, given the amount of new data supporting attribution. Looking at these trends one can see that there is a decoupling between the political agenda in a great many countries, and the demands of our times. We should be changing our development patterns to adapt to higher risk of disaster and climate change instead of looking for ways to prolong the life of the old patterns.

Over the last decade the number of disasters seems to have been relatively stable, although there are indications that their intensity has increased. Mortality is down, but economic losses are up, says the new report by the United Nations on disaster risk reduction (GAR 2011). It was release at the onset of this week meeting of the UN Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, in Geneva, where representatives from 175 governments, scientists, experts, and NGO’s will be seriously discussing disaster risk reduction. The Global Network for Disaster Reduction’s has simultaneously launched “Views from the Frontline”, a survey that interviewed 20,000 people in 58 different countries.

There are no natural disasters, only natural hazards, and social catastrophes. Disasters are the result of the interaction between natural phenomena, the built human environment, and the social environment. The probability of disasters is dependent on three main factors: the risk related to natural events, the degree of people’s exposure to these events, and the degree of vulnerability of exposed populations and their built environment.

The proportion of the global GDP exposed to tropical cyclones has increased from 3.6% in the 1970’s to 4.3% in the first decade of this century. The UN report warns that “the extensive risks of today can become the intensive risks of tomorrow when they accumulate in places exposed to major hazards such as earthquakes or tropical cyclones”. In other words, high frequency, low severity risks disseminated throughout most of a country’s territory could gain severity in the future as they hit a same area cumulatively. Almost 97% of the losses caused by extensive disasters (high frequency/low severity) are associated to weather-related events. Fatality is low, but infrastructure and property loss is high. They hit harder the households of low income communities.

Extensive disaster losses and their downstream impacts on health, education, structural poverty and displacement go unaccounted for in most countries, hiding the real cost of disasters.”

Since the 1970’s the number of countries exposed to tropical cyclones has increased. Population growth, urbanization and the territorial spread of the built environment increases exposure, the risk of disasters and economic losses.

“Decisions on land use and building can push up risk significantly, especially in cities with large informal settlements and limited local government willingness or capacity to manage city expansion in the public interest.”

Disaster reporting has improved in many areas, as well as access to information. The gap between detected and reported disasters is closing. Closing this gap, apart from indicating an improving governance, increases disaster awareness and helps further advances in governance. (See the chart)

Human exposure to tropical cyclones and floods is rising rapidly. The number of people exposed to floods has jumped from 32.4 million per year, in 1970’s, to 69.4 million, in 2000’s. Economic exposure, the global GDP exposed to floods, escalated from an yearly average of US$ 36 billion to US$ 100,1 in the same period. (See the charts).

In Latin American and The Caribbean, people’s exposure more than doubled, going from 600 thousand to 1,3 million a year. Annually average exposed GDP, moved from US$ 2.5 billion, to US$ 5.4 billion.  (See the charts).


Population exposure to tropical cyclones  increased sharply from 65.9 million, in the 1970’s, to 122.5 million, in the 2000’s. Economic exposure has also increased fast, from around US$ 626 billion to US$ 1,575 billion. (See the charts).

In Latin America and The Caribbean people’s exposure was 1.1 million a year, in the 1970’s to reach 5.2 million a year in the 2000’s, a five fold change. Economic exposure was multiplied by ten, from US$ 2.3 billion to US$ 24.3 billion. (See the charts).

In spite of sharp increases on the degree of exposure and economic losses, raising the social and economic risk for these populations,  progress in governance capacity to prevent and reduce disasters has been slow.

There is continuing difficulty integrating risk reduction into public investment planning, urban development, environmental planning and management, and social protection. Few countries reported the systematic recording of losses or comprehensive assessment of their risks. Less than half of these countries undertook, multi-hazard risk assessments and less than a quarter did so in a standardized manner.”

The UN report calls attention to the fact that whereas weather-related disasters are often characterized as a consequence of unexpected weather events, in reality they are the outcome of “an unseen but continuous accumulation of risk”.

“Disaster risks can increase or decrease over time according to a country’s ability to reduce its vulnerability and strengthen risk governance capacities.”

Progress in disaster governance has been modest overtime, especially when compared to the pace of increase of disaster risk, and losses caused by disasters. Extreme weather-related disasters have grown exponentially. Investment in preparedness, prevention, and adaptation have been slow.

The average degree of global progress in disaster governance and institutional arrangements has moved only slightly between 2007 and 2009, from 3.3 to 3.4, where the minimum is 1 and maximum 5. Advances in preparedness and response went from 3.2 to 3.4.

“Views from de Frontline”, shows that 57% of interviewees from 58 countries say disaster-caused losses have increased. But governance improvement has been far too low, only 2.4. South American countries showed the third lowest index of governance progress.

As the intensity of risk increases, the cost of risk reduction increases exponentially, whereas the probability of realizing the benefits in a given period of time decreases. (UN Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction)

Comparing the 2009 and the 2011 surveys the Global Network for Disaster Reduction found that it shows a mixed picture: “there are reported improvements in government coordination, partnerships and planning; but overall there appears to have been little or no progress over the two-year period.” Local governance is key to disaster reduction, but not enough. Cooperation at the national level and international coalitions to help the more vulnerable populations are also indispensable.

“Whilst each country has different governance arrangements there are consistent functions and characteristics which lead to progress. For example the rights of all groups to information about risks and risk reduction measures, participation in decisionmaking, budgeting, planning and implementation must be explicitly recognised in policy, legal and institutional provisions. These must shape local government practice.” (“Views from the Frontline” – The Global Network of Organizations of Civil Society for Disaster Reduction)

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