After floods, UN urges countries to work on prevention

The recent floods that hit Europe and Asia were more than just a natural disaster, according to the UN: They are a sign of the need, from the affected countries and other potential victims, to invest more on risk-reduction, in order to prevent these disasters from taking such a heavy toll on the population, instead of simply waiting for them to come and then worrying about reconstruction and relief.

The UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) warned on August 9 that “Disaster risk reduction is not an option, it is an urgent priority,” as it joins the effort to bring relief to the millions of people displaced by the disaster in South Asia – 30 million were displaced and more than 2,000 killed in only during the latest monsoon season. The UNICEF considered South Asia’s worst floods in living memory, as million of acres of farmland were inundated and thousands of households were destroyed.

In fact, it’s hard to evaluate if the worst aspect of the floods is the initial impact of it or its aftermath. Regions struck by floods become instantly disease-ridden, as most of the local infrastructure is destroyed. Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is one example: Its hospitals are completely filled with Diarrhea patients who had no other option than to use the filthy water available after the floods, and more people keep coming in. The shortage of toilets has obliged nurses to give bedpans and buckets for the patients, who are lodged in tents outside the hospital, for the lack of beds. Bangladesh, by the way, was particularly severed by the floods. Simply two-thirds of the entire country went underwater after the floods, and nothing less than 100,000 people (and counting) contracted diarrhea or dysentery.

In other places, such as Gujarat, in India, the problem was the sewage. In Gujarat, the massive amounts of water busted open the sewage pipes of the city, spreading filthy, disease-ridden sewage everywhere.

In Europe the impact was much lower, but it still inundated areas all over Europe, displacing several people. Yet, it’s somewhat surprising that floods can still have such a heavy impact on such an advanced region. After all, let’s not forget the floods of 2006, where Central Europe was devastated by heavy floods that displaced thousands and killed dozens.

That’s exactly the kind of consequences that the UN is trying to avoid, for the simple fact that it’s much easier and cheaper to avoid them than most people think – especially when compared to the cost of reconstruction and relief and, above all things, the casualties. ISDR expert Reid Basher put it bluntly: “It is not rocket science. It is plain and simple stuff about building stronger houses, putting in warning systems and educating the public so we’re not flat-footed when these events come.”Yet, such measures still look like rocket science for many governments, as their lack of action has made us believe.

And for those who think that it’s somehow justifiable that poor countries such as Bangladesh suffer as much as they did with this kind of disaster, there was already a framework (called Hyogo Framework, crafted in Kobe after the Tsunami of 2004) to be followed, especially for countries at risk. But the Tsunami passed, relief agencies appeared, and some authorities got lazy on implementing the given framework. Now, the ISDR urges the 168 signatory governments once again to speed up the works in implementing the framework.

China, not exactly a developed country, is one example of good work, as the ISDR itself cited: Even though the floods that currently hit the country are getting worse, the number of deaths was drastically reduced, when compared to decades ago. “In 1959,” Basher said, “there was a flood or flooding that caused a loss of two million lives. Now, every year, they have the same sorts of floods, possibly even worse. But, the numbers killed are only in the order of say 500 a year. So, I think you can see that the modest investments (…) pay off and clearly in the China case, pay off very handsomely.” The investments? “Warning systems, evacuation systems, public education, better building standards…” definitely not rocket science.

So what would really be the reasons behind such laziness and consequently the appalling number of deaths and displacements caused by a type of disaster that should be long dominated by men? One can only speculate about such reasons, but some of them are well known, such as lack of political will and corruption. In politics, anything related to prevention is not usually a good deal, because prevention is somehow like insurance: You pay for it in order not to use it. Since you don’t use it, people can only assume you have it, but they wouldn’t know.

Now, for a politician, it’s not a good deal to invest in prevention because people won’t notice the money spent on it, therefore they won’t associate the investment with the politician responsible for it, and they won’t give them much credit. The bottom line is: People only care about a remote threat when it’s too late; a mayor for example, might get remembered for the relief work he did after a disaster, even though he was the responsible for that disaster in the first place, for not having invested in prevention.

Corruption is even worse, because it strikes before and after a disaster happens. The Hyogo Framework, for example, is one that requires certain investments in order to be properly implemented. In case a government receives money from an NGO, or the UN, for example, aimed at implementing such framework, who can assure that the money will really be used for it? The same happens after a disaster: Who can assure the relief money donated by governments; NGO’s and people will be effectively used? After the Tsunami there were reported cases of misuse of relief money by local governments and even some NGO’s. Plus, corruption is a notorious issue among South Asian countries.

Now it’s not that hard to understand why these countries still suffer the way they do and don’t follow China’s steps. China is definitely not an example of transparency, but if anything can be said in its favor is that the Chinese government knows how to set its priorities.

Regardless of any example, countries in South Asia, Europe and anywhere else in the world should think in terms of protecting the lives of their citizens, for all it’s worth. Besides, natural disasters also bring in a great deal of destruction and financial losses for companies, people and ultimately the government. A flood might not be as high profile as a terrorist attack, but its destruction, sometimes, is much bigger – so why not see it as a matter of national security? To a certain point, that’s the kind of thinking the ISDR is trying to instill among governments.

After all, floods accounted for 84 percent of all disasters between 2000 and 2005 and caused US$466 billion in losses throughout the world between 1992 and 2001, not to mention all the money invested in bringing relief to the affected areas. To think that most of these losses (of money and lives) could have easily been avoided… but what matters is that they still can, as long as authorities are willing to work for it.