Facing natural disasters | Sunday Observer

Facing natural disasters

December 26, 2004. Around 9.30 am on this fateful day, a huge earthquake rocked the undersea area off Indonesia, triggering a massive tsunami that devastated many Indian Ocean countries including Sri Lanka. More than 40,000 Sri Lankans perished in the tsunami tragedy, which is unprecedented in modern history, though legends persist about tsunamis of centuries past.

Natural disasters – from drought to floods to wildfires – have increased over the last few decades. Experts say that Climate Change has caused some of these, if not all. There is thus greater focus on facing natural disasters, given only some of them can be predicted and prevented early. Awareness is the key in most instances – for example, it is possible to predict whether a seaquake would generate a tsunami and evacuate an entire coastal area.

The United Nations (UN) has designated a separate day to focus on disaster mitigation. The International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction was started in 1989, after a call by the United Nations General Assembly for a day to promote global culture of risk-awareness and disaster reduction. Held every October 13 (today), the day celebrates how people and communities around the world are reducing their exposure to disasters and raising awareness about the importance of reining in the risks they face.

The theme for 2019 is “Reduce disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services”. This is part of the ‘Sendai Seven’ campaign, centered on the seven targets of the Sendai Framework. This year will focus on Target (d) of the Sendai Framework: “Substantially reduce disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services, among them health and education facilities, including through developing their resilience by 2030.”

Given the high death tolls, notably in earthquakes and tsunamis, it is especially important that great care is taken to ensure that schools and hospitals are built to last by ensuring that location and hazard-appropriate planning regulations and building codes are enforced. Other areas of critical infrastructure which help to achieve other Sendai Framework targets include potentially life-saving utilities and services such as food and water supply, energy, telecommunications and transport.

The year 2016 saw the launch of the “Sendai Seven” campaign by the United Nations Centre for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), centred on the seven targets of the Sendai Framework, the first of which is reducing disaster mortality. The campaign seeks to create a wave of awareness about actions taken to reduce mortality around the world. Last year’s target focused on prevention, protection and reducing the number of people affected by disasters.

The UN notes that the Sendai Seven Campaign is an opportunity for all, including Governments, Local Governments, community groups, civil society organisations, the private sector, international organisations and the UN family, to promote best practices at the international, regional and national level to reduce disaster risk and disaster losses.

At the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, the international community was reminded that disasters hit hardest at the local level with the potential to cause loss of life and great social and economic upheaval. Sudden disasters displace millions of people every year. In 2014, 19.3 million people were newly displaced by disasters. Disasters, many of which are aggravated by climate change, have a negative impact on investment in sustainable development. The very fact that we are witnessing changed rainfall and drought patterns is an indication of Climate Change at work. Governments and other donors spent $5.2 billion on Disaster Risk Reduction from 2005 to 2017, representing 3.8% of the total humanitarian financing during that time period. And roughly 90% of international funding for disasters goes toward recovery work, leaving a bit more than 10% for prevention.

Disaster experts have realised the need to climate-proof all infrastructure facilities, be they schools, bridges or hospitals. In the coming decade, the world will invest trillions of dollars in new housing, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure. The UN notes that climate resilience and disaster risk reduction must be central to this investment. There is a strong economic case for such steps: making infrastructure more climate-resilient can have a benefit-cost ratio of about six to one. For every dollar invested, six dollars can be saved. This means that investing in climate resilience creates jobs and saves money.

Sri Lankan authorities must investigate whether these safeguards have been ignored in the ongoing construction boom. While one cannot expect many of these measures to be retro-fitted to existing buildings, all new buildings must necessarily conform to climate and disaster preparedness guidelines. We should also ponder whether the number of tsunami shelters in the coastal areas is adequate. A recent documentary on NatGeo TV revealed that the Indian state of Odisha has as many 800 newly built shelters to house people in the event of natural disasters.

A recent TV news bulletin also exposed how sub-standard bridges have been constructed in many rural areas which may not withstand raging floodwaters or another natural disaster. Thus it is essential to conduct frequent inspections on ongoing construction projects to ensure that they can afford some safety to people using those facilities if a natural disaster strikes.

One of the best ways of creating awareness on natural disasters and their prevention/mitigation is to catch them young – schoolchildren should be taught the basics of facing natural disasters and climate resilience should form the basis of a subject for higher grades such as Grades 8 and 9. This is par for the course in many countries such as Japan and Chile, where tsunamis are frequent. Chile, where a major global Climate Change conference is due to take place in December, regularly conducts drills for students on how to successfully deal with a tsunami scenario.

Religious institutions, generally used as shelters in times of natural disasters, should also guide their flocks on natural disasters. Religious dignitaries of all denominations should be taught the basics of dealing with natural disasters. The simple act of sounding the bell in a place of worship in case of looming danger is enough to summon villagers. Most places of worship are on higher ground a little away from the village itself, so there is a greater chance of survival if villagers were to gather there until the disaster loses its steam.

Scientists are working on predicting natural disasters with greater accuracy, so that more lives could be saved. For example, it is still nearly impossible to predict an earthquake with any accuracy – if at least 10-15 minutes’ notice can be achieved; there is a chance of saving precious lives. Remember that some disasters such as floods can sometimes be prevented with better flood mitigation methods – it is thus important to keep looking at preventing natural disasters altogether. But our best chance of facing natural disasters is still education, awareness and resilience.