Seven steps to surviving a disaster

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Seven steps to surviving a disaster


Jim Yong Kim

Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 6,000 people in the Philippines last fall, reminded us how much suffering and damage nature can cause, and how important it is to invest in resilience and be ready to respond.

As climate change and booming urbanization leave more and more people exposed to hazard, governments worldwide want to make sure their roads, buildings and public services can withstand natural disasters such as floods, storms and earthquakes.

Here are seven lessons, culled from years of experience, on how to reduce risks:

1. Identify those risks. Indonesia has shown how this can be done. There, the government and partners developed InaSAFE, a free interactive software program that allows local officials to ask questions that help them quantify the damage a disaster might cause.

If an earthquake hit tomorrow, for example, how many schools would be affected? How many students would be at risk?

By helping to estimate the number of people and facilities in danger, the tool helps decision makers better prepare for, and respond to, disaster risks.

2. Make it clear that prevention is possible and often easy. Early-warning systems are among the most cost-effective solutions to reducing the worst effects of disasters.

These can be as simple as megaphones to spread alerts to local communities or as advanced as Japan’s earthquake technology, which can stop Shinkansen high-speed trains before an earthquake strikes to avoid derailment.

Just $1 invested in early-warning systems can save as much as $35 in damages - and protect untold numbers of lives.

When Cyclone Phailin hit India in the fall of 2013, a new early-warning system and a network of cyclone shelters kept 900,000 people out of harm’s way.

Forty people died in that storm - a tragic number, but far fewer than the 10,000 who died in a storm of the same size in 1999.

Sometimes avoiding catastrophe is as simple as ensuring that drains aren’t clogged (one of the most common causes of urban flooding) and that infrastructure is well maintained so roads and bridges don’t crumble with the first heavy rain.

Although it’s difficult to measure how much damage or loss of life such precautions prevent, citizens should be made aware of the value of being prepared so they can hold public officials accountable for making proper investments.

3. All public investments and policies should be guided by detailed risk assessments that incorporate up-to-date models. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti, with a magnitude of 7.0, killed more than 220,000 people. Just a month later, the much stronger earthquake in Chile, magnitude 8.8, caused only about 500 deaths.

What was the difference in Chile? Up-to-date building codes that take into account the country’s high seismic risk and are strictly enforced.

4. Give everyone free access to information about dangers posed by storms, earthquakes and other disasters.

Open-source tools such as the World Bank’s Open Data for Resilience Initiative make it easy for countries to collect and share information on risk, and allow people with a variety of expertise to participate in the challenge of building resilience.

5. Healthy ecosystems save lives and money.

An investment of $1.1 million in mangrove forests in northern Vietnam provided a buffer against the floods and storm surges of Typhoon Wukong in 2000, significantly reducing the loss of life and property there compared with other areas. (The forests also save Vietnam an estimated $7.3 million a year in dike maintenance.)

6. Find political champions. In tight fiscal environments, every government needs a strong political champion to keep the focus on climate and disaster risk management.

Countries can learn from Peru, where the head of disaster risk management reports directly to the prime minister and works closely with the ministry of finance, or from New York City, where former Mayor Michael Bloomberg (the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News) personally fought for investments in preparing for climate change.

7. Build back better. Reconstruction after a disaster presents a golden opportunity to make buildings and infrastructure more resilient to future events.

In Indonesia, reconstruction after the 2004 tsunami even brought about the political will to end the 30-year conflict in Aceh, creating the foundations for a prosperous future.

Even as climate change increases the risk of natural disaster, cities can be made increasingly safe, as long as public policy makers carefully prepare.

*The author, a former president of Dartmouth College, is the president of the World Bank Group.

By Jim Yong Kim

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