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Climate change

Reducing disaster risks

by Stephan Beschle
Within few decades, climate change has quadrupled the number of natural disasters. Especially in Asia, more and more people are affected. Bangladesh is one of the countries where disaster risk reduction works fairly well. And Burma (Myanmar) is trying to enhance the crisis management after the bad experience with cyclone Nargis. [ By Stephan Beschle ]

Back in the 1970s, 100 million people were affected by the annual floods, cyclones, droughts or earthquakes. Today, some 225 million are affected, as urbanisation is growing in threatened areas such as coastlines, among other reasons.

Of all continents, densely populated Asia is the region where people are most endangered by natural disasters. Asia must live with tougher weather events – including tropical storms, harder monsoon rains or ongoing drought. Devastating landslides and floods are only two categories of consequences.

A survey by the children’s rights organisation “Save the Children” has examined the effects of two cyclones that hit Asia within only six months. The results show that comprehensive disaster risk reduction (DRR) can save lives and substantially reduce financial damage.

When cyclone Sidr hit the coast of Bangladesh on 15th November 2007, 5.4 million people were affected, 3,500 died. Less than half a year later, on 2nd May 2008, cyclone Nargis was raging in Burma. One million people lost their homes and 130,000 were reported as dead or missing.

Both level-four cyclones struck lower and extremely populous delta regions where mostly poor fishermen and farmers dwell. However similar the two disasters were, their effects were indeed very different: in Burma, considerably more people died and the economic damage was more than twice as much as in Bangladesh ($ 1.6 billion).

Early warning systems and emergency plans

The main reason for this difference is that Bangladesh has a fairly well-functioning disaster risk reduction system (DDR). DRR includes all activities by families, communities, governments or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that help diminish the effects in advance. The aim is to cover all risks, including the effects of climate change.

In practice, communities are analysing the hazards they are exposed to, and accordingly, escape routes are identified. On the national level, safe schools and storm-proof emergency shelters are built, early warning systems installed and infrastructure projects – such as embankments – are financed. Campaigns help to inform people about the risks and life-saving measures.

Bangladesh is frequently struck by cyclones. For twenty years now, the country has been engaged in disaster risk management. Hence, emergency plans, early warning systems, evacuation and acute emergency assistance are coordinated properly. A network of trained volunteers managed to warn the people of the approaching storm Sidr. Three million were evacuated, 1.5 million were brought to storm-proof shelters. All over the country, the media were covering the imminent cyclone Sidr so that every village was well informed.

The early warning system of the Bangladesh communities is controlled by the Cyclone Preparedness Programmes (CPP) and supported by Save the Children, the Union Disaster Management Committee and other NGOs. The CPP was introduced in the 1970s by the Red Cross, the Red Crescent as well as the Bangladesh government. It focuses on the aid of comprehensively trained volunteers. The CPP builds shelter-homes and works directly with the concerned people. Today, the CPP early warning system itself reaches up to eight million people in the country’s delta region.

In Burma, the situation was entirely different when cyclone Nargis reached the Ayeyawaddy-Delta. As cyclones are rather uncommon in that area, there was almost nothing like disaster preparations or early warning systems. Most of the local inhabitants were not prepared for the storm, it hit them completely defenceless. Only people living in villages with solid buildings such as monasteries or schools were able to find protection. Yet, many villages were entirely destroyed by the storm and the waves. There were no defined evacuation routes, embankments and shelter buildings. As a result, cyclone Sidr claimed a considerably higher number of victims in Burma than Nargis did in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Role model Bangladesh

In a way, Bangladesh can be regarded as the vanguard of Asian disaster prevention. It can serve as a role model for other nations. The country has learned from its experience. In 1970, the hitherto most devastating cyclone Bhola caused the death of at least half a million Bangladeshi. It was followed by Gorky in 1991: 138,000 people died. In November 2007, cyclone Sidr claimed 3,500 lives.

However, Bangladesh is only at the beginning. Nationwide, disaster plans and prevention programmes are being arranged in endangered towns and villages, but further efforts are necessary for a yet more comprehensive preparation of the country.

Bangladesh and Burma are poor countries with long coastlines. It is not easy to keep all coastal towns and villages prepared for disasters and effectively provide preventive measures at all times. Even though the benefit is proven, the financing of disaster risk reduction programmes and strategies is not sufficient. Thus, damaged emergency shelters, for instance, are not always being repaired. Emergency stocks for times of disaster are hardly ever replenished, if at all. Financing the training of volunteers or professionals is difficult.

As shown in the survey by Save the Children, there are still no standardised warning signals to warn people of natural disasters. Different flags used before and during cyclone Sidr caused utter confusion and many families were only evacuated after the cyclone had already reached the mainland.

After the disastrous consequences of Nargis, Burma started enacting national guidelines to define the roles and responsibilities of disaster management. For the first time, there is a strategic plan on how to react during natural disasters. This effects all levels – from the government down to the villages.

Other endangered countries would be wise to adopt these measures – not only in Asia, but all over the world. Pragmatic disaster preparation is costly, but surveys prove that these investments make economic sense: according to the World Bank, every dollar invested helps to prevent a damage of two to four dollars. The understanding of the local people is essential for effective DRR. A safety culture can only be established if people in danger areas are well informed and above all motivated to consciously integrate the risks into their everyday lives.

The necessity of DRR projects and their implementation can be shown by the principle of “build back better” – e.g. that damaged structures are not simply replaced but improved. If, for instance, the roof inclination of a building is altered, the surface exposed to the wind can be diminished. During the next storm, the structure will be much more resilient and therefore the house will remain intact.

In Burma, the “build back principle” is applied during the restoration of infrastructure destroyed by cyclone Nargis. Schools, water supply, sanitary facilities, water reservoirs and dykes are not merely rebuilt but ameliorated by maintaining safer construction standards. DRR concepts are developed in schools, but also in special trainings as well as assessments with those communities at risk. Moreover, these communities are closely connected to the country’s general healthcare, education and food programmes.

Thanks to all these measures, the people in Burma have become more aware of the dangers of cyclones and additionally, many people – including teachers, mayors and religious leaders – are eager to learn more about how to protect themselves from the various other natural disasters (such as floods or earthquakes).

People of all age groups have to be taken into account. The organisation Save the Children, for example, is focussing on the work with children, teaching them the ability to identify evacuation routes and mark them in self-drawn maps.

Culture of safety

A well-functioning network of all institutions involved in DRR projects is helpful as well. Governments have to become actively engaged, but so must private or civil-society actors. A comprehensive coordination of all participants is indispensable. Yet, the actual key to success can only be found in the local people: they are the ones who have to react immediately in order to save their own lives in an emergency. Nobody is more familiar with the villages, regions and ultimately the local risks than the local inhabitants themselves. Therefore they are best placed for finding appropriate solutions.

In Bangladesh, both the government and the population have been appreciating the DRR-mea­sures for quite some time. Yet, often one disaster succeeds another so that medium and long-term infrastructure projects are very troublesome to accomplish. After the 1970 Bhola cyclone, embankments were built in the city of Barisal – but only few have been added over the last 30 years.

After the devastating cyclone of 1991, investments primarily went into the construction of emergency shelters. However, they were not maintained or refurbished in the years to follow. As a result, many of these shelters were useless and failed to protect people from cyclone Sidr in the year 2007.

Meanwhile, people have realised that emergency shelters can be integrated pragmatically into their everyday lives. Many of the renovated buildings are also used as schools or administrative buildings. Thus, they are not abandoned and left to dilapidate, but serve a vital function for the lives in the towns and villages.