Disaster risk is not shared equally, says new UN report

Volcanoes. Tsunamis. Earthquakes. Sinkholes. Cyclones. As science and policy reports go, the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (the GAR to its friends, to disaster what the IPPC reports are to climate) is a bit more Hollywood than most.

And yet, the latest GAR — launched this week — has manages to run relatively under the radar. Similarly, the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai next week — which the report is designed to put evidence on the table for — is unlikely to receive nearly as much discussion as the comparable Paris climate talks or the Sustainable Development Goals process. We don’t expect key heads of states to make public statements on the topic, let alone go.

Disaster is much more than Hollywood though. It’s real.

A key soundbite-stat prepared by the report is that 42 million human life-years were lost annually in internationally reported disasters between 1980 and 2012, making it equivalent to TB or malaria.

Economic losses from disasters are now reaching an average of US$250 billion a year. Looking ahead, they estimate losses of US$314 billion a year to the built environment alone — these are the sums we need to set aside.

Another topline stat offered by the GAR — if the risk was shared equally amongst the world population, it’d be the equivalent of US$70 for each individual of working age.

Except it’s not shared equally, and that’s a key theme of this year’s report. For a start, some people drop seventy dollars on a night out, but it’s two months’ income for those below the poverty line. Moreover, some countries are simply more resilient to disaster, mainly because they have more money to be able to cope with them. It’s easier to deal with a sudden problem when other things are going well.

As Andrew Maskrey — lead author of the GAR — told assembled climate, sustainability and risk wonks at a Royal Society event yesterday: “It’s not the same if you are living in Denmark as it is in Mauritania. It just isn’t.”

80% of those life-years the report calculates were lost to disaster are spread across low and middle-income countries. Expected annual losses are five times higher in low-income countries compared to high-income ones. If we look at Small Island States, those losses amount to almost 20% of their total social expenditure compared to 1.19% in North America.

The GAR should pay attention to inequalities within countries too, even within towns. As the GAR argues, socially segregated urban development generates new patterns of disaster risk. Low-income households are pushed into areas which are much more exposed, have insufficient or non-existent infrastructure and social protection and already struggle with environmental degradation.

Reporting on the launch of the GAR on Wednesday, RTCC’s Ed King found issues go global warming rather conspicuous by it’s absence, with Margareta Wahlström — Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction — appearing to be at pains not to mention the ‘c’ word.

But at the Royal Society event, both Wahlström and Maskrey were keen to stress the interaction between disaster risk and climate. It’s in the report too, which also devotes a chapter to issues of overconsumption, quite bluntly stating that our current approach to economic growth depends on an unsustainable use of energy, fresh water, forests and marine habitats, clean air and rich soil.

As the report describes: “Today the Fijian island village of Vunidogolo is still relatively unknown, but it is already on its way to making history” as its population was permanently relocated in January 2014 as a reaction to rising sea levels.

Responding to the report at the Royal Society, IIED senior fellow David Satterthwaite praised how well the GAR highlighted disaster risk as socially constructed, which also highlights how much of an impact social policy can have in protecting us. We make this, so we can re-make it, better. UK Chief Government Scientific Advisor Mark Walport similarly stressed that the key to disaster risk reduction was not just managing problems, but preventing them. You can’t prevent a hurricane, but you can prevent the damage it causes, and you can avoid human-caused climate change which might increase risk.

Whether we are any good at taking such positive steps towards disaster risk is another matter. As Maskrey told the Royal Society, “We’re getting better at dealing with our hangovers [dealing with disasters], but we keep drinking more and more [increasing the risk of them happening].”

There remains a question of who sets aside those billions needed to be set aside to deal with disasters will come from. What’s the distribution of that? How does this fit into the thorny issue of loss and damage, for example? The GAR decided to leave off a recommendations chapter, choosing to take the approach to scientific advice which puts evidence on the table ready for the policy talks at Sendai, New York and Paris. They certainly seem to have stressed issues of inequality. Whether this is heeded by politicians — and what they make of it — is to be seen.

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