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Human failure exacerbates scale of natural disasters: Oxfam

'Rethinking Disasters', a new report by the international aid agency Oxfam, says political inaction, poor decisions and bad management have turned South Asia into the world's most disaster-prone region

 Although nature traditionally gets a bad rap, it is human failure that turns a natural catastrophe like a cyclone into a humanitarian disaster, says a new report by the international aid agency Oxfam. 'Rethinking Disasters' says political inaction, poor decisions and bad management have turned South Asia into the world's most disaster-prone region.

"The Kashmir earthquake in 2005 killed 75,000 people. That's more than 12 times the number who died in Japan's great Hanshin earthquake in 1995, which was of similar strength," says Oxfam's regional director for South Asia, Ashvin Dayal. "Why? Poverty, exclusion, inequality, and unsuitable policies raise risks for poor people, women, and minorities especially."

Incidentally, since the 1950s, Japan has consistently spent around 1% of its annual budget on anti-disaster measures.

Both the human and monetary costs of disasters in South Asia are enormous. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the Kashmir earthquake alone killed over 120,000 people and left millions homeless on the sub-continent. The floods of 2007 affected over 30 million people in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The region loses up to 6% of its GDP to disasters annually, says the Oxfam report. Following the 2006 floods in Sindh, for example, struggling farmers with few assets to fall back on lost 60% of their annual income because of damage to cash crops.

Climate change is aggravating the situation. Two-thirds of South Asia's disasters are climate-related. As global warming increases the frequency, severity and unpredictability of extreme weather events, and causes sea levels to rise, South Asians will bear the brunt. It is predicted, for example, that Bangladesh will lose a tenth of its rice crop and one-third of its wheat output over the next 50 years.

"The good news is that it doesn't have to be this way," says Dayal. "The right policies and preparation can save lives and money -- our experience shows that preparedness costs a fraction of what a disaster response can cost."

For instance, in Bangladesh, the creation of early-warning systems, anti-cyclone shelters and other risk reduction measures has saved tens of thousands of lives. Although Bangladesh's population has more than doubled in 40 years, the toll from the biggest cyclones has plummeted. When cyclone Sidr struck in November 2007, an estimated 3.2 million Bangladeshis were evacuated from coastal areas, and over 2 million were already in special shelters when the cyclone hit. Around 4,000 Bangladeshis died -- compared with around 140,000 in a similar cyclone in 1991, and up to 500,000 in 1970.

The Hyogo Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction, agreed in 2005 by countries across the world alongside regional and international organisations, sets out three strategic goals:

  • Integration of disaster risk reduction into sustainable development policies and planning.
  • Development and strengthening of institutions, mechanisms and capabilities to build the resilience of communities to hazards.
  • Systematic incorporation of risk reduction approaches into emergency preparedness, response and recovery programmes.

"The problem is that governments and donors do not prioritise these preventative measures," says Dayal. Governments, donors and development agencies must integrate disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation measures into all development projects, strengthen infrastructure, reduce underlying vulnerabilities, and encourage more resilient communities, says Oxfam. "Each new disaster deepens poor people's vulnerabilities and slows development. Failure to act urgently, therefore, will be counted in lost lives and wasted money," says Dayal.

The report outlines four key areas of action:

  • Social -- From reaction to preparedness: Communities must be enabled to understand the risks and prepare accordingly, supported by effective early-warning systems and appropriate media coverage.
  • Physical -- Sound structures and environmental protection: Physical infrastructure must be strengthened according to local conditions and hazards while preserving the natural environment.
  • Economic -- Tackling poverty: The scale of a disaster is determined by people's underlying vulnerability. Public works and financial safety nets can help people avoid falling into destitution; livelihoods must be secured.
  • Political -- Protecting rights in a crisis and beyond: Disasters make existing inequities worse. Governments must combat South Asia's huge inequalities in incomes, power and access to support, providing essential services and information as basic rights.

Specifically, South Asian governments need to:

  • Reduce underlying vulnerabilities by tackling malnutrition, expanding and improving public education, health, water and sanitation systems, and combating discrimination against women, ethnic and religious minorities, and people of lower castes.
  • Invest in and integrate disaster risk reduction principles in all development planning in accordance with the Hyogo Framework. These include effective research, monitoring and analysis, promoting risk reduction awareness, sharing relevant information, developing early-warning systems, enforcing appropriate building codes, protecting natural environments, creating social and financial safety nets, conducting preparedness drills and taking into account the effects of climate change.
  • Support community-level preparedness by ensuring that appropriate emergency supplies are available, thus helping well-prepared communities to act as the first line of defence.
  • Work with NGOs to help prepare communities for disasters and to strengthen monitoring processes while accepting that governments, as the guardians of human rights and freedoms, bear the primary responsibility for reducing the risk of disasters, saving and protecting lives.
  • Cooperate with each other in sharing immediate data with all the region's disaster management agencies, while working through the regional organisation SAARC to promote South Asian approaches to disaster risk reduction.
  • Work for an effective and equitable international agreement to tackle climate change. With rich country support, South Asian countries can do this by adjusting their development planning appropriately, to minimise environmental harm.

Rich country governments need to:

  • Provide at least 0.7% of their gross national income in international aid, of which disaster risk reduction, based on Hyogo Framework principles, is a key component. Development assistance should also address underlying risks by expanding and improving public education, health, water and sanitation systems, as well as tackling discrimination against women, minorities, and people from lower castes.
  • Support NGOs in their disaster preparation activities and assist South Asian governments in expanding successful local disaster management approaches nationally.
  • Ensure that emergency responses integrate key disaster risk reduction principles.
  • Help achieve an effective and equitable international climate change agreement. They can do this by significantly reducing their greenhouse gas emissions (in order to restrict global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels) and by providing additional financial support above existing aid levels to help South Asian countries meet the costs of adapting to climate change.

InfoChange News and Features, April 2008