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Securing lifelines during a disaster

    Vinod Thomas
    Ronald S. Parker
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CATASTROPHE: The floods in Pakistan are estimated to have been worse than the scale of the devastating 2004 tsunami. – PHOTO: AP
CATASTROPHE: The floods in Pakistan are estimated to have been worse than the scale of the devastating 2004 tsunami. – PHOTO: AP

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 an earthquake brought destruction to the Chinese province of Qinghai. Disasters caused by tropical storms and heavy rain have been increasing rapidly. Pakistan has suffered economic damage and massive loss of lives from what has been classified as the worst flooding it has had in decades. And most recently, massive mudslides in north-western China are claiming numerous lives and destroying 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 to heart. 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 the 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.

Equipping human settlements to cope better with 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. They should have 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 — which 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. Although 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 are 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.

In India

India has improved its ability to provide early-warning systems and hurricane shelters, and evacuate areas most at risk. By 1996, preparedness in India had advanced to the point where it minimised the devastation when a cyclone hit Andhra Pradesh. The 1996 event killed 1,057 people, while a previous cyclone in 1977 had killed 11,316. One action that made a difference was that mangroves planted under a 1990 World Bank-supported cyclone response project had grown enough to provide protection and they saved the lives of many shrimp farmers and fishermen six years later. During the subsequent 1997 cyclone reconstruction project, Andhra Pradesh did construct infrastructure to higher design standards, made vulnerability assessments, and received new technology for cyclone warnings.

While poor construction is a major reason why so many lives are lost in developing countries when disasters occur, the experience 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 earthquake so dramatically illustrated. And everywhere, better land-use planning is proving to be essential to ensuring that people are not putting up 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 such events could 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 or reduction in their development plans.

This must change. If we are ready to invest sizeable 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 the front pages of newspapers, international donors, like the affected countries themselves, find it hard to stay engaged with prevention efforts. This 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 Senior Consultant at the World Bank's Independent Evaluation Group.)

Facilities vital to crisis response are linked to networks that will not fail them.


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