By Themba Mkhize
These days, reading about the climate feels like using the doomsday clock to check the time. The weather skips between scorching heat, frequent floods and wildfires. This can only be matched by the rhythmic spread of zoonotic diseases. Taken together, a foreboding shadow seems to envelope the future of human life. Even when the limitations of forecasting are considered, the increasingly frequent incidence of disasters feels like a promise of unfortunate things to come.
Though not a very popular organ, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) is more relevant today than it has ever been. The UNDRR’s current mandate is the global implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. Adopted in 2015, the framework has seven strategic targets to meet by 2030. They are:
- To substantially reduce global disaster mortality relative to the decade 2005-15
- To substantially reduce the amount of humans affected by disaster activities
- To reduce direct economic losses from disasters, relative to the global gross domestic product (GDP)
- To substantially reduce disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services, especially those related to health and education
- To substantially increase the number of countries with national and local disaster risk reduction strategies
- To substantially enhance international cooperation in support of developing countries
- To substantially increase the availability of and access to multi-hazard early warning systems and disaster risk information and assessments
The ambition of these targets is justified. Disaster reduction and management are important for securing a high quality of life and attaining sustainable living. In commemoration of the International Day for Disaster (Risk) Reduction (IDDRR) on October 13th 2020, the UNDRR and the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters published a report titled Human Cost of Disasters.
According to the report, disasters increased by 74% for the period 2000 and 2019 when compared with the period 1980 to 1999. A total of 4.2 billion people were affected by emergency events (some repeatedly), up from 3.25 billion people. The incidence of climate related disasters has almost doubled – major floods have doubled, while storms, droughts, wildfires and “extreme temperature events,” have also become more prominent. Similarly, those killed in disasters increased to an estimated 1.23 million people from 1.19 million. Adjusted for inflation, the economic cost of disasters ballooned from 1.63 trillion 2019 US dollars to 2.97 trillion. These statistics are tempered by the fact that reporting mechanisms have become more sophisticated, information has become more accessible and populations have grown.
The figures above are dwarfed by the figures related to COVID-19, however. The Asian Development Bank suggested the global economy may lose out on between USD $5.8 trillion and $8.8 trillion. In the article Ecology and economics for pandemic prevention, a team of researchers found that whereas COVID-19 will cost the world upwards of 5 billion in GDP, pandemic prevention initiatives funded for over a decade would reduce the risk of another pandemic considerably, reduce deforestation and increase carbon sequestering for only 2% of the cost of COVID-19 (Dobson et al, 2020).
For a bleaker image, the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020 lends a hand. COVID-19 has pushed 72 million into extreme poverty, exacerbated food insecurity and disrupted child immunization in 70 countries. Unfortunately, 3 billion people lack basic handwashing facilities, but before that is considered, 2.2 billion don’t even have safely managed drinking water. Some progress has been made in some aspects, but there is a lot more to do and not that much more time if it is to have maximum effectiveness.
Of course, resulting misfortunes probably won’t be distributed equitably. The richest countries have gained the most from the use of dirty energy sources. For the most part, their responses have been sterile thus far. In the end, they will be best able to protect themselves if (or when) the worst comes to pass. The COVID-19 pandemic will progress similarly. When vaccines come, those with the most will get the most, and first.
At the other end, the poorest nations remain the most vulnerable. As usual, the poorest people will suffer the most.
This inequity was bemoaned in the Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights to the United Nations in 2019. This year, it is Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction who is criticizing developed countries for their unconvincing display. Too often, where sober, constructive cooperation is necessary, pettiness, lethargy and selfishness have instead taken root.
Yet, that cannot demotivate us. For poorer countries, disaster risk reduction and management at the national level will be increasingly important for our security, viability and continued development. We have a responsibility to ourselves to maintain the best disaster reduction strategies possible, and to, in our regional groupings, bond closer together and build resilience. This needs to be supported by well-coordinated global effort to sustain national level frameworks, but, with the current state of the multilateral system, there are no guarantees. In all likelihood, poorer countries will have to fend for themselves and battle the tides of divisive global political rhetoric. Nonetheless, we must lobby developed countries and international agencies to ensure our survival, especially when they are the root of our discontent.
The international community is the Wild West, filled with all sorts of disasters waiting to happen. While we cannot avoid them all, we owe it to ourselves to strategize, prepare and act.
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