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  • Poverty equals increased disaster risk
  • Rapid urbanization adding to vulnerability
  • Dutch, Bangladeshi offer examples of preventative measures

Disastrous floods, storms, earthquakes and droughts are twice as frequent as in the 1980s, according to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED). Most striking is the huge jump in weather-related disasters.

But what really explains this extraordinary acceleration?

Cyclones, earthquakes, and erupting volcanoes are hazards, but they only become deadly disasters when they happen in vulnerable areas where people have few defences.

“It only becomes a disaster when you introduce poverty,” says Ian Bray, spokesman for UK charity Oxfam.

That is why the 2010 Haiti earthquake killed over 200,000 people while the much stronger Chilean tremor a few weeks later claimed fewer than 500 lives. And why the hurricanes, storms and floods that also regularly batter Haiti kill more than 10 times as many people there than in neighboring, richer Dominican Republic.

Weak infrastructure, crumbling buildings, rapid population growth, poor governance, precarious rural livelihoods and ecosystem decline all underpin the rapid expansion of disaster risk in the developing world.

Climate change makes things worse, skewing disaster impacts even more towards poorer communities.

The UN Development Program (UNDP) pinpoints which kinds of countries are most exposed to particular disaster types in its report 'Reducing Disaster Risk'. This concludes:

  • Earthquakes hit hardest in countries with high urban growth rates, like China and Indonesia
  • Tropical cyclones do most damage in countries with a high percentage of arable land, such as Myanmar and the Philippines
  • Floods cause most problems in countries with low Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, like Bangladesh and India

The UNDP has also found that while just 11% of people exposed to natural hazards live in poor countries, those nations suffer 53% of total deaths.

And the poor - through ignorance and desperation - sometimes contribute to their own downfall by deforesting hillsides or over-cultivating farmland, leading to new cycles of flood, drought or landslides.

Meanwhile, rapid, uncontrolled urbanization in the developing world is creating new disaster risks.

“In the next 20 years the world’s population will grow by about 2 billion people and all the growth will occur in cities in the developing world,” warns Brian Tucker, president of NGO Geohazards International. “That results in more people in shoddily-built buildings.

Knowing these risk factors means authorities must better plan how to protect people and develop their economies more safely - rather than blaming “acts of God” and relying on disaster relief.

The Dutch have shown it is possible, with proper planning and political will, to contain natural hazards, in their case storm surges and flooding rivers.

The Bangladeshis too, in a more low-tech way, have set up early warning systems for floods and cyclones based on volunteers with bicycles and megaphones, and text message alerts.

By contrast, it wasn’t the weather that turned drought into famine in Congo, Kenya and Sudan but rather armed conflict and weak food distribution networks.

And in China corrupt builders and officials have been blamed for the high death toll in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

“Good progress is also being made in other areas,” reports the UNDP. such as "upgrading squatter settlements, strengthening rural livelihoods, protecting ecosystems, and using microfinance, microinsurance".

The fact is that ancient flood myths owe more to their civilizations’ proximity to large rivers than to divine intervention. Back then technology could not contain the floodwaters.

Today it can, but not all communities can pay for it. It is our responsibility to fix that and make sure natural hazards no longer turn into natural disasters.

James Tulloch

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