Polar bears have evolved over thousands of years to adapt to a harsh climate. Today, we see these magnificent animals stranded on melting ice floes. But this time the bears have no time to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. In a few decades, they could face extinction. Do we have to be like the polar bears as rising sea levels, more extreme weather, intensive storms, flooding, heat waves, and droughts come our way?
Of course not. Unlike polar bears, we can adapt quickly to protect ourselves from natural hazards. Using simple, cost-effective methods, we can save lives, land and livelihoods. We have the knowledge and experience to make a critical difference. What’s needed is the will to do so today, before the next disaster strikes. The point is that we have no time to waste. This is not just about climate change.
Rapid urbanisation and population growth mean more people are now at risk in any case. Over the last thirty years, disasters have affected five times more people than they did only a generation ago. Mega-cities built on seismic areas or exposed coastlines are at particular risk. In cities such as Mumbai, Cairo, Mexico City and Lagos, each with more than 10 million residents, decaying infrastructure, land erosion, crowded conditions, and a paucity of rescue services could spell potential calamity should a major quake or series of storms hit.
But climate change will certainly exacerbate our vulnerability to disasters. As outlined in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, global warming could put hundreds of millions of people at increased risk. For example, increased rainfall will trigger floods and landslides; more frequent droughts will affect water availability and crop yields; higher temperatures will bring more heat waves; and warmer oceans will produce more intensive storms.
We must be neither frozen by fear or despair, nor lulled into a sense of complacency that technology will somehow rescue us. It’s time to get to work in building more disaster-resilient communities. And since, as always, the poorest countries and communities are the most vulnerable, that is where we need to start.
The good news is that the tools needed are not expensive, particularly compared with the potential costs of disaster. Experts estimate that a dollar invested today in risk reduction can save up to seven dollars in relief and recovery costs tomorrow. Many of the most effective tools are simply about mobilising people, not expensive technology, to save lives. Community-based early warning systems, local disaster education and evacuation plans, better crop and land management techniques – all this and more is being done with great ingenuity and success in some of the world’s most impoverished countries.
Some simple knowledge of the dangers is the most effective risk reduction mechanism of all. On Simeulue Island, Indonesia, situated near the epicentre of the 2004 tsunami, residents had been taught by preceding generations what to do if an earthquake struck and the ocean suddenly receded, as it did on December 26, 2004: head straight for the hills. As a result, fewer than ten of the island’s 78,000 inhabitants were killed by the giant waves. In nearby Aceh, no such community knowledge or warning system existed. In some areas, up to 90 per cent of the population perished.
In Bangladesh, devastating cyclones swept the country in 1970 and again in 1991, killing half a million people. A community-based, ‘human early warning system’ was set up along the Bay of Bengal. Villagers were trained how to build cyclone shelters, design evacuation plans, and other simple measures. In recent years, the death toll from monsoons and heavy rains has fallen dramatically.
For effective disaster preparedness and education, look at Cuba. In September 2004, the fifth-largest hurricane ever to hit the Caribbean struck the island with winds of 124 miles per hour. Nearly two million people — more than 15 percent of the total population — were safely evacuated. No one was killed. The following summer, Hurricane Dennis hit 12 of Cuba’s 14 provinces, affecting some 8 million people. Thanks to effective community mobilisation and evacuation efforts, fewer than 20 people died. Better land use policies can also save lives, particularly in overpopulated or heavily eroded areas.
Risk reduction is one of the best insurance policies we can take out to protect investment in development. Overnight, a disaster can destroy decades of development gains. In Pakistan, the 2005 quake cost the country $ 5 billion in damages — approximately the same amount the World Bank lent the country over the last decade. We cannot stop earthquakes, or the tsunamis, or the hurricanes. But natural hazards need not lead automatically to human catastrophe. Countries and regions, towns and villages, must redouble their efforts, to invest in the simple, life-saving measures that can reduce their vulnerability to disasters and a changing climate. The upcoming Global Platform in June will bring together governments, scientists and world bodies to look at practical ways at doing this.
We really do not have to go the way of the polar bears.
John Holmes is United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. He serves as Chair of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction