If We Can’t Stop Natural Disasters, Then Let’s Contain Their Human Costs

By Alice Thomas
An overturned car and a tree stripped bare at the site of a tornado in Moore, Oklahoma. Reuters Photo/Lucas Jackson

Right now, the shell-shocked residents of Moore, Oklahoma, are grappling with the loss of 24 lives and the destruction of entire neighborhoods following a devastating tornado on May 20. Meanwhile, across the globe, tens of thousands of people in Bangladesh and Burma are returning to damaged homes and villages in the wake of Cyclone Mahasen, which thankfully proved more merciful than anticipated.

With natural disasters like these increasing in frequency and force around the world, one has to ask: are we simply reacting to these threats, or are we learning to better prepare and respond to them? That was the topic of discussion in Geneva last week, where representatives of more than 170 countries met for the fourth session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction.

The good news from these deliberations is that progress has been made in reducing fatalities from natural disasters like floods, storms, and earthquakes – due in part to improved early warning systems and evacuation planning (as was the case with Cyclone Mahasen). The bad news is that the enormous economic costs from disasters are on the rise. Indeed, the headline from Tuesday’s opening session was new research suggesting that the global cost of disasters since 2000 is equivalent to $16.2 million being spent every hour for 13 years.

Unfortunately, less attention is being paid to the incalculable human costs of disasters – and in particular, the alarming increase in the number of people displaced. Population growth, expansion of human settlements into disaster-prone areas, poorly constructed housing, and other factors have all led to more and more people being left homeless when floods and hurricanes strike. According to a report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, in 2012 alone, approximately 30.3 million people were forced to flee during natural disasters – almost double the 2011 tally. And with more severe weather likely to be brought on by global climate change, that trend is likely to continue.

Far more can and must be done to address disaster-induced displacement, both in terms of prevention and response. One of the goals of last week’s conference was to revisit the Hyogo Framework of Action for Disaster Risk Reduction (HFA), a ten-year plan endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 2005 that aims to make the world safer from natural hazards. Set to expire in 2015, governments around the world are negotiating the parameters of a new disaster management framework, HFA2, that will build upon the progress made to date.

It is vital that this new agreement address the millions of people who lose their homes every year to disasters. This can be accomplished in three ways. First, the HFA2 should require states to regularly report data on disaster-induced displacement. This systematic collection, analysis, and sharing of information is the necessary first step toward effective policy change.

Second, the new agreement should commit governments to mitigating displacement by improving their land use plans, enhancing and restoring natural buffers like trees and coastal area, and increasing public investments in disaster-resilient housing.

Third, the HFA2 must acknowledge the responsibility of governments to protect people who are displaced by natural disasters. Experience tells us that rich and poor countries alike do a terrible job of protecting people forced from their homes during floods, storms, earthquakes, and droughts. Oftentimes, displaced people are not given temporary shelters and are forced to live in tents or makeshift shacks for months on end. Where temporary shelters are provided, they are often woefully inadequate, lack sanitation and other basic necessities, and are unsafe for vulnerable groups like women, children, and the elderly. In cases of prolonged displacement, such as in flood-prone Colombia, people are often displaced a second time when they are evicted from temporary shelters like schools and have nowhere else to go.

This duty of protection will be especially important in Africa, where the historic Kampala Convention on the Protection of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa has now entered into force. The Kampala Convention acknowledges – for the first time in international law – the responsibility of national governments to protect people displaced within their own countries not only by conflict, but by natural disasters and climate change as well.

As I explained last week during consultations with African officials, the Kampala Convention gives Africa the chance to lead the world on this key issue. So as the 15 countries that have ratified the convention begin to implement it, they must ensure that measures to address disaster- and climate change-induced displacement are fully incorporated into their national disaster risk management plans.

It is encouraging that the world finally seems to have noticed the economic, social, and political costs of natural disasters and climate change. But their impacts on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people remain acute and under-appreciated, and HFA2 gives us a unique opportunity to change that once and for all.