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World heading for catastrophe over natural disasters, risk expert warns

With cascading crises where one event triggers another set to rise, international disaster risk reduction efforts are woefully underfunded

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The worlds failure to prepare for natural disasters will have inconceivably bad consequences as climate change fuels a huge increase in catastrophic droughts and floods and the humanitarian crises that follow, the UNs head of disaster planning has warned.

Last year, earthquakes, floods, heatwaves and landslides left 22,773 people dead, affected 98.6 million others and caused $66.5bn (47bn) of economic damage (pdf). Yet the international community spends less than half of one per cent of the global aid budget on mitigating the risks posed by such hazards.

Robert Glasser, the special representative of the secretary general for disaster risk reduction, said that with the world already falling short in its response to humanitarian emergencies, things would only get worse as climate change adds to the pressure.

He said: If you see that were already spending huge amounts of money and are unable to meet the humanitarian need and then you overlay that with not just population growth [but] you put climate change on top of that, where were seeing an increase in the frequency and severity of natural disasters, and the knock-on effects with respect to food security and conflict and new viruses like the Zika virus or whatever you realise that the only way were going to be able to deal with these trends is by getting out ahead of them and focusing on reducing disaster risk.

Failure to plan properly by factoring in the effects of climate change, he added, would result in a steep rise in the vulnerability of those people already most exposed to natural hazards. He also predicted a rise in the number of simultaneous disasters.

As the odds of any one event go up, the odds of two happening at the same time are more likely. Well see many more examples of cascading crises, where one event triggers another event, which triggers another event.

Glasser pointed to Syria, where years of protracted drought led to a massive migration of people from rural areas to cities in the run-up to the countrys civil war. While he stressed that the drought was by no means the only driver of the conflict, he said droughts around the world could have similarly destabilising effects especially when it came to conflicts in Africa.

Its inconceivably bad, actually, if we dont get a handle on it, and theres a huge sense of urgency to get this right, he said. I think country leaders will become more receptive to this agenda simply because the disasters are going to make that obvious. The real question in my mind is: can we act before thats obvious and before the costs have gone up so tremendously? And thats the challenge.

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Sheep cross parched land in Raqqa province, eastern Syria, where lack of rain and mismanagement of land and water resources have displaced thousands of people. Photograph: Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters

But Glasser, speaking ahead of next months inaugural world humanitarian summit in Istanbul, said international disaster risk reduction (DRR) efforts remain woefully underfunded.

According to UN figures, in 2014 just 0.4% of the global aid budget of $135.2bn roughly $540m was spent on DRR. Glasser said the UN wanted that proportion to rise to at least 1% and would push for an increase at the Istanbul meeting.

Breakdown of international aid between 1991 and 2010

That would still be a very small amount of money to meet the problem and that is a big challenge, he said.

I used to work for a company that used to say, Once we get a little more money in, well start spending more of it on training our staff. But its too tight this year; maybe next year. This is one of those things like capacity-building with people: you have to start doing it. You cant wait. You just have to make choices.

He said that the internationally agreed Sendai framework for disaster risk reduction, which was adopted last year, offered the best way to reduce the human and financial cost of disasters.

Its basically about beginning to think of disaster risk as a core planning activity so that when countries invest in infrastructure theyre not building a hospital in a flood zone or establishing communities in areas vulnerable to storm surges and are not creating risk but identifying ways of reducing it, he said.

Thats the only way that I can imagine were going to be able to cope at all and even then, its a huge challenge to do that.

The special representative said that DRR simply could not be seen as an adjunct of development or humanitarian relief: they were all part of the same structure. He said that in countries such as Bangladesh, which regularly experiences devastating floods, thousands of lives had been saved over recent decades because DRR had been factored into core economic planning and money invested in infrastructure, storm shelters and early warning systems.

Last years earthquake in Nepal was another case in point and an example of the need for a more holistic approach to development and DRR.

2015 disaster related deaths

If you take Nepal, there was a school safety programme that retro-fitted something like 350 to 400 schools to be prepared for earthquakes. As I understand it, not one of those schools collapsed or was damaged significantly during the earthquake, said Glasser.

So this is a great example of the links between sustainable development and risk reduction. Theres something like 35,000 public and private schools in that country. If you build them and theyre not earthquake-resilient, and tens of thousands of them are destroyed, it just highlights that you need to get it right the first time if youre going to achieve a development outcome like improving literacy or the education of girls.

Nepal earthquake 2015: drone footage shows devastation in ancient town of Bhaktapur – video

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/apr/24/world-heading-for-catastrophe-over-natural-disasters-risk-expert-warns