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Don't Prioritize: Mainstream Hazard Reduction Into Economic Development Aid
Arthur Lerner-Lam

Although as geoscientists we may not know precisely when an earthquake or tsunami will strike, or when a volcano will erupt, we do know that natural hazards are inevitable, and that some of them will turn into humanitarian disasters. Relating the geological inevitability of Earth’s processes to disaster risk-reduction policies has always been a challenge, especially as most geoscientists who study them tend to think in geologic time, not policy-making time.

When a natural hazard turns into a human disaster, as did Hurricane Katrina, policy-makers sit up and take notice, but their reactions are just that — reactive — and not necessarily structured to build disaster resiliency for the longer term. Additionally, policy actions tend not to focus in advance on the disadvantaged or chronically poor communities and countries that shoulder disproportionate damage and casualties — and that need the most help. International aid programs are vital, yet arguing about geological inevitability has not been the best strategy to generate international hazard reduction programs. A greater connection needs to be made between disaster risk-reduction policy-making and economic development.

Part of the problem is that the money available for development assistance is limited. Thus the agencies that disperse aid, such as the national and international development organizations, development banks, global and regional nongovernmental organizations, must set priorities. And few would maintain that reducing abject poverty is not at the top of the list. Thus, the principal anti-poverty strategies — food security, clean water and sanitation, control of disease, conflict resolution — receive priority funding. As, arguably, they should.

But what about the poverty that’s caused or amplified by natural disasters? Perceiving disaster risk management as an ex post response action — falling to humanitarian aid and civil defense and military units — discounts the longer term impacts that hazards exert on growth and development, and complicates development assistance. The mantra after the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster — “building back better” — makes sense in response to a crisis, and obviously it is best to build better in the first place. Can the linkage between poverty and disaster vulnerability be used to modify development assistance when poverty reduction measures are given first priority?

Another challenge is in measuring the success of any given program. Development agencies are able to measure the outcomes of most poverty-reduction strategies, such as improving soil fertility or controlling malaria. Reducing risk from an earthquake possibly decades into the future is not as measurable, or at least not with the metrics used by development agencies. Even worse, any measure of benefit arising from reducing the risk from a future event is discounted relative to current, urgent needs.

This reality is reflected in the percentage of development projects that include a natural hazard response or risk management component. For example, according to the Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) of the World Bank, only about 10 percent of all of the bank’s loan commitments since 1984, totaling about $26 billion, can be identified as having a natural disaster component. Of this money, about half has been used for emergency recovery, rather than in specific mitigation projects.

Such funding, however, has been increasing in recent years, owing to a statistical uptick in disasters, greater human exposure, more accurate accounting of disaster losses and more willingness on the part of the development agencies and their partners to experiment with new financial instruments for managing risk. Hurricane Mitch in 1998, the 1999 earthquakes in Turkey, the 2001 Bhuj earthquake in India and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami are among the events that have focused attention and resources on natural hazard risk management and response.

About 40 percent of all the disaster-related projects initiated by the World Bank in the last two decades are still ongoing. The Turkish quakes, for example, generated World Bank commitments of more than $1.1 billion, and another $1.7 billion of reconstruction activity. Ironically, on average, loans made for disaster-related projects perform better financially than those made for general development assistance. This has not gone unnoticed by lending institutions.

In addition to this greater financial exposure, the earth sciences are also playing an increasingly important role in a shift in development organization strategy. Within the last two years, global natural hazard synthesis studies from the United Nations and the World Bank, and a regional report from the Inter-American Development Bank, have all used geoscientific data to make the point that natural disasters are not random occurrences, but are relatively predictable, especially geographically. An IEG review released earlier this year argues that borrowing countries need to be categorized and their lending programs formulated according to their natural hazard vulnerabilities.

This last statement signals an impressive change in the way development organizations conduct business with respect to natural hazards. Natural hazard risk management, specifically preemptive risk reduction, is assuming importance as an explicitly identified component of economic development programs. It is no longer a question of whether disaster risk management is important, but how and when it should be implemented as part of an integrated economic development package, even for the very poorest countries with other urgent needs. The International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, a U.N. program, made this point in overarching terms in its Hyogo Framework for Action, written in January 2005, a month after the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Global development groups are also beginning to realize that prioritization is no longer the best framework for making decisions about disaster risk reduction and development. Instead, the notion that is gaining traction is that disaster risk management should be “mainstreamed” into country assistance programs. At a minimum, mainstreaming means that natural disaster risk awareness should be a conscious theme in project planning, even if there are no specific disaster management objectives. Being “risk-conscious” thus falls into the same category as being sustainable.

More specifically, disaster risk reduction should be included during policy dialogues, in training and capacity building, and in knowledge and data management. Mainstreaming accepts the argument that building disaster resiliency serves a dual purpose, achieving poverty reduction and other socioeconomic objectives by developing robust physical and social infrastructure. The World Bank, the United Nations, and some regional development banks are taking explicit steps to do just this.

These recent changes mean that natural hazard risks in developing countries must be identified and assessed, and forecast, with new levels of accuracy. These assessments should be done regionally with the best available data and analysis, and should be the building-blocks of a new global synthesis. A large part of this process is deploying the in situ monitoring networks and data management systems, and the concomitant observational work and analysis, needed to determine the hazard.

The assessment of risk requires cooperation among geoscientists, engineers and social scientists, especially development experts, to link the hazard to an understanding of physical and social vulnerabilities. Such groups should examine the interrelationship between poverty and natural hazard vulnerability, so that quantitative risk assessments can be linked to particular development strategies.

A global effort to reduce natural hazard risks is a dream shared by many of our colleagues, but it cannot play out in a development policy vacuum. Making the explicit link between risk reduction and economic development turns a global effort into an international one.


Lerner-Lam is associate director for seismology, geology and tectonophysics and the director of the Center for Hazards and Risk Research at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in New York.

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