Roughly 178,000 people were killed in Bangladesh in 1990 when a cyclone devastated the country. In 2007, in the reportedly bigger Cyclone Sidr, 5,000 to 10,000 lost their lives — a shift resulting mostly from early warning systems and preparedness. By comparison, when a similar-sized storm, Cyclone Nargis, hit Myanmar in 2008, approximately 138,000 died. Myanmar had invested a mere $10 million in preparedness since 1991.


How NGOs, development agencies, humanitarian organizations, and governments can redirect the flow of money — to preparedness, for example, versus solely funding disaster response and recovery under the current practice — could prove key to reducing the loss of lives and sustaining investments in a warming world, where such disasters are expected to increase in frequency or strength or, in some cases, both.

Researchers estimate that disasters uprooted some 32 million people in 2012 — double the amount of the previous year. Sudden disasters like cyclones and floods, and slow onset disasters like droughts, cause loss of human life and widespread devastation, putting the emphasis on practical measures that can reduce risks posed by extreme events.

While planning and preparedness reduces risks and exposure to natural disasters, investment in those efforts is minimal and flows in the wrong direction, according to a report by senior research advisor Jan Kellet of the Overseas Development Institute. In his report, Kellet explains how the funding comes in response to disasters rather than in advance of it. Practically speaking, the current setup is unsustainable and vastly ineffective, Kellet says. Less than 0.5 percent of international aid in the past 20 was spent on reducing risks from natural disasters. (By comparison, 3 percent of international aid went for reconstruction and post-disaster response.)

Now NGOs, governments, and aid agencies have an opportunity to develop new approaches. In the October 2013 issue of Nature Climate Change, the author of this piece reported on disaster financing and the Hyogo Framework for Action, a United Nations plan to reduce the effects of natural hazards. It’s clear that development aid spent, for example, on warning systems and shelters for protection from cyclones can help avoid the loss of lives by an order of magnitude.

“Increasing exposure of people and economic assets has been the major cause of the sharp rise in economic losses that the world has seen over the last five years in particular,” says Margaret Wahlstrom, head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. “We need to create a global understanding of the steps we can take to reduce the buildup of exposure and disaster risk that will come if we continue to plan and build as we have done up to now.”

There’s both a humanitarian and a business case for investing even modestly in preparedness rather than simply continuing to spend massive amounts on emergency response and reconstruction. Wahlstrom points to the first decade of this century, the hottest on record, when an unprecedented number of deaths from heat waves occurred even in relatively prosperous European countries. Flood events, too, are wreaking havoc. While an average of 116 million people are affected by floods annually, that number will rise dramatically with climate change “if there is not better enforcement of land use regulations and building codes around the world,” she says. “Governments need to step up on the ongoing efforts to ensure that critical infrastructure such as schools, health facilities, homes, industry, and transport are protected against extreme weather events.”

Do we want to continue the path of funding crisis after crisis? Or, can humanitarian organizations work with development agencies and governments to support climate disaster prevention? The latter has greater potential to save lives and reduce loss. The more sustainable model is to integrate prevention and preparedness into development and humanitarian aid, and that approach can help lessen the need for post-crisis responses, one, it inevitably turns out, after another.

Lisa Palmer is a freelance journalist and a fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, SESYNC, in Annapolis, Md. Her writing covers the environment, energy, food security, agriculture,...