Aug 9, 2008

World - Paying the price for neglect

Cyclone Sidr, Cyclone Nargis, the Indian Ocean tsunami. Natural disasters are striking with greater frequency today than at any time in recent memory. Yet disasters are still not recognised for what they are: a growing threat to development and the painstakingly-built lives and livelihoods of millions of people. Unless policy leaders see how the rising incidence of natural calamities hurt the growth of their economies, actions will continue to fall short, leaving nations and peoples progressively vulnerable to devastation and loss.

Increasingly, disasters stem from man-made causes. It has been weather and water-related events such as floods and windstorms that have risen sharply, rather than geophysical phenomena such as earthquakes and volcanoes. And, it’s ever more evident that the severity of these floods and storms and their damages are linked to human actions such as deforestation, soil degradation, and the emission of pollutants that affect the climate.

If in the past, policymakers thought that safeguarding the environment is a drag on growth, the story now is clearly the opposite. Neglecting the environment and suffering the damages from natural disasters and other consequences is emerging as the central threat to long-term growth.

The data tell a startling story. Between 1980 and 1984, some 800 natural disasters were reported worldwide, affecting the lives and livelihoods of some 400 million people. Twenty years later, this number had soared to over 2,300, affecting almost four times as many — or some 1.4 billion people. The losses incurred after each disaster have shot up even more. In the past decade alone, the direct losses from natural disasters may have reached a trillion dollars, 20 times higher than five decades earlier. Clearly, disaster-prone countries are losing a growing share of their GDP to natural catastrophes.

India, like many other densely populated developing countries, is especially vulnerable. The Bay of Bengal’s warm shallow seas and still air provide ideal conditions for cyclones to rise. The young mountains of the northern Himalayas and the plains that border them are prone to devastating earthquakes. Floods used to occur only in the Indo-Gangetic belt, but over the past 50 years they have spread further afield to Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu and even to regions of Rajasthan. The Indian Ocean tsunami left more than 10,000 people dead and about 5,600 missing in India alone, with damages estimated at 0.18 per cent of GDP.

By one estimate, one third of India’s 603 districts are hazard prone, placing about half the country’s economy potentially at risk. In all this, the poor, who are most likely to live and work in harm’s way without adequate protection, are often the hardest to be hit.

A top priority is to prevent natural disasters by dealing with their man-made causes. Wetlands, for example, have always provided a buffer against storm surges. But over the past century, half the world’s wetlands have been lost due to their draining for agriculture, the channelising of rivers, and the turning of floodplains into aquaculture zones. Forests, too, are a key source of protection against flash floods and landslides. But they are also shrinking because of their conversion into agricultural land, expansion of human habitat, and illegal logging.

Fortunately, appropriate and timely actions can make a difference. When typhoon Wukong ravaged Vietnam’s coast in 2000, communities that had replanted lost mangroves remained relatively unharmed whereas neighbouring provinces suffered significant loss of life and property. Mangrove forests provided similar protection from the ravages of a cyclone in Andhra Pradesh, India, in 2002. Clearly, the restoration of degraded environments in these vulnerable areas made the critical difference.

Equally important is being prepared for disaster. “Be Prepared” has long been the Boy Scouts’ motto — and Bangladesh provides a striking example of how true this is. In the early 1970s, a cyclone killed more than 300,000 people. But after the country put in an extensive early warning system and prepared communities for a possible disaster, a recent cyclone of similar intensity did far less damage, taking over 3,000 — not 300,000 — lives.

But, while the payoffs to prevention are high — by some estimates providing a return of $4 to $12 to a dollar invested — our actions fall short as they don’t carry the same visibility and political appeal as immediate post-disaster reconstruction.

India has a good record in the area of recovery and reconstruction. That same capability now needs to be extended to prevention and preparedness, including investment in early warning systems, better land-use planning, the adoption of appropriate building standards, and the development of risk transfer mechanisms, including insurance schemes.

Finally, better links need to be established between planning and budgeting, and coordination improved between government agencies themselves as well as with civil society and communities. Local government units need to be empowered with information, capacity and resources, and calamity funds increased both at national and local levels.

In the end, preventive measures and disaster preparedness will not end up diverting resources from efforts to generate economic growth. Instead, they will reduce the risk of natural disasters — without which sustained growth will remain an elusive goal.

(Vinod Thomas is the Director-General of the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group.)

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