As climate disasters multiply, reducing vulnerability is key

* All opinions expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Deaths and losses from extreme weather can be limited, but it takes preparation and investment

By Debarati Guha-Sapir and Ilan Kelman

Debarati Guha-Sapir is a disaster epidemiologist at the University of Louvain and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Ilan Kelman is Professor of Risk, Resilience and Global Health at University College London and the University of Agder.

Hundreds of people have died in European floods and hurricanes and fires in the United States during the summer of 2021 – disasters many of which are linked to man-made climate change.

Yet these disasters are truly a reflection of growing vulnerability, especially among those who already have the fewest opportunities.

Is current global warming really causing more disasters?

Weather and climate related disasters represent perhaps 90% of the disasters recorded in the world these days. Meanwhile, disasters involving earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions are calculated to be less frequent, although the mortality for each can be very high.

Reported floods and storms have each increased about three times over the past decade compared to 1980-89. Despite the risk reduction efforts of organizations such as the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDDR) and the World Bank, the number of people affected by storms over the past decade has more than doubled compared to the 1980s and economic damage increased by 600%. .

Flood deaths have increased and caused nearly 160% more deaths since 2000 compared to deaths in the 1980s.

These are undoubtedly compelling signals of increasing vulnerability, regardless of weather and climate change.

Why is vulnerability increasing?

The international and national development policies in force encourage galloping urbanization, creating wasteland of concrete parking lots, industrial sites and unsanitary dwellings, all ready to generate torrential water flows.

A recent US study found that for every percentage point increase in impervious roads, parking lots and other surfaces, the greatest flooding each year (measured as average daily flow) increased by an average of 3.3%.

Deforestation, constraining rivers and wetlands, and other ecosystem changes that meet global demand for raw materials are also leading to increased flooding and muddy downpours.

Next come those who live in fragile homes in the vast favelas of Latin America, the slums of South Asia or the dilapidated townships of Africa, who continue to face frequent flash floods that destroy their homes, their property. and more and more their neighbors.

Cyclone Nargis in Burma in 2008 killed more than 130,000 people, mainly due to weak government response and lack of preparedness at the village level, which resulted in extreme vulnerability. Massive deforestation and soil erosion have also contributed.

Obsolete and vulnerable infrastructure is another key failure in many recent disasters related to floods, wildfires and hurricanes.

As insurance coverage, state aid programs, evacuation options, and improved planning and construction become more available, it is primarily the wealthy who have the resources. to get there.

Poor quality infrastructure is easily damaged, warning information does not reach marginalized people, and the poorest have little opportunity to prepare or evacuate as they have to focus on day-to-day living.

Heat waves have more than quadrupled over the past decade compared to the 1980s and are expected to get worse in the short term. Peak periods of heat and humidity increase in frequency and intensity.

Heat waves exceeding 40 ° C and humidity cause terrible physical costs for farm workers, construction workers and women who are forced to sleep in unventilated rooms in which they cook.

We need to rapidly design low-cost, locally appropriate adaptation measures for the most vulnerable by improving housing design and imposing labor regulations, especially for occupations such as construction and working in non-confined spaces. broken down like many garment factories.

In the end, it is often human action that turns climatic events into deadly calamities.

Most vulnerability reduction actions at the community level are inexpensive and do not require new money. But we need to stop investing money in policies that create disaster risk.

We spend far more on disaster response – over $ 120 billion per year – than on risk reduction directly, which is roughly $ 6 billion per year.

We must promote the pragmatic links that link climate change action with disaster risk reduction and support people in their everyday lives.

This means reviewing and modifying development, agricultural and industrial activities and the incentives that we already know increase risk. This means strong evidence to understand the effectiveness of what works at the village and community level to minimize the effects of any environmental risks.

We demand a global engagement of all – the privileged, the literate and the vehicle owners alongside the isolated villagers without basic services, the daily workers and the urban poor crammed into informal settlements.