Securing lifelines in a disaster | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 19, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, August 19, 2010

Securing lifelines in a disaster

Photo: AP/ Pavel Rahman

The frequency and intensity of natural disasters have been on the rise in recent decades. Just in 2010, a catastrophic earthquake devastated Haiti, a far stronger seismic event battered Chile, and yet another earthquake brought destruction to the Chinese province of Qinghai.
Disasters due to tropical storms and heavy rains have been increasing most rapidly. Pakistan has suffered economic damage and massive loss of lives from what has been classified as the worst flooding in decades and most recently, massive mudslides in northwestern China claimed numerous lives and destroyed infrastructure.
This tragic sequence of events is yet another demonstration that disasters are recurrent, and therefore, national development planning should always involve increasing resilience and readiness over time.
The recent calamities not only produced casualties, they also triggered emergency relief intended to address the life-threatening problems of survivors. Therein lies a lesson worth taking more to heart going forward. Too often urgent care could not be provided because critical care facilities were no longer functioning, or there was no way to access services. While headlines focus on damage, not enough attention is being given in the reconstruction efforts to the importance of ensuring functioning lifelines -- notably potable water and first aid -- during disasters.
Making human settlements more ready to face extreme natural events is a continuing process. However, much can be achieved in the immediate term by making vital installations, such as hospitals and emergency shelters, more disaster-resistant with uninterrupted power supply, a network of protected access routes, and secure provision of safe water and sanitation. In too many places, facilities that are essential for an effective response are tied to networks that are almost guaranteed to fail.
In Haiti, Chile and other countries, potable water could not be provided to victims in reasonable time, and emergency medical facilities dropped off-line just when needed most. The ability to take early action in critical care also has a cascading impact on the whole recovery process. Where basic connectivity to emergency medical care and water continues, reconstruction is that much easier -- there are more able-bodied individuals when it is time to pick up the pieces.
It is unfortunate that the increase in disaster incidence and severity is taking place just as population density in many vulnerable urban areas is increasing rapidly. Notwithstanding that increased density is a major cause of rising damage levels, disaster damage can sometimes be relatively light even in dense settlements when effective prevention measures have been taken. Chile's relatively low level of damage, given the severity of its seismic event, is of interest to all. We see hopeful signs elsewhere too, that public officials are realising the importance of emphasising prevention while dealing with relief.
Bangladesh, subject to annual flooding and to truly massive losses of life, has improved its ability to provide early-warning systems and hurricane shelters, and evacuate areas most at risk. As a result, while the cyclone and floods of November 1970 took the lives of 300,000 people, a similar size storm in May 1997 claimed 188 lives in contrast.
In Vietnam, there was a recognition that forests not only harbour biodiversity and provide environmental services, but they can also protect from natural disasters. The country's investment of $1.1 million, supported by the World Bank, in mangrove replanting and other measures saved communities an estimated $7.3 million a year in sea dyke maintenance, and later on, in 2000, when typhoon Wukong struck, the project area remained relatively unharmed while neighbouring provinces suffered significant loss of life and property.
While poor construction is a major reason why so many lives are lost in developing countries when disasters occur, experiences in Colombia and Turkey with earthquake-resistant building codes, enforcement of construction standards and oversight of materials procurement practices are likely to pay off significantly, which is what the Chile quake so dramatically illustrated. And everywhere, better land-use planning is proving to be essential to ensuring that people are not putting up their homes in harm's way.
Some 50 developing countries face recurrent earthquakes, mudslides, floods, hurricanes and droughts, yet many of them do not seem to recognise that they will recur. International agencies do not acknowledge these risks as a systematic threat to their assistance, and almost half of the countries borrowing from the World Bank for disaster response did not mention disaster prevention/reduction in their development plans.
This must change. If we are ready to invest sizable funds to establish mechanisms to avert financial crises, we need to do the same with the escalating hazards of nature. In a few months the world's attention will no longer be fixed on natural disasters (until the next big one, that is). Once the tragedy drops off newspapers' front pages, international donors, like the countries, find it hard to stay engaged with prevention efforts.
This sad reality is yet another reason to focus on the more easily achievable goal; when rebuilding, always ensure that facilities vital to crisis response are linked to networks that will not fail them. So when the earth shakes or the waters rise, critical networks will be disaster-resilient -- and the victims do not need to look at each other in desperation to survive.

Vinod Thomas is the Director-General and Ronald S. Parker is a Senior Consultant at the World Bank's Independent Evaluation Group.

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