Why Aren't We Ready for Natural Disasters?

The frequency and intensity of natural disasters have been rising sharply in recent decades. Today Pakistan is witnessing the loss of lives and livelihoods from the deadliest flooding in decades, the full impact of which is yet to be fathomed. The World Bank pledged $900 million for recovery programs and the UN is raising $460 million for immediate relief efforts, but thousands of human lives are still in danger, and the livelihood in the entire country is disrupted. Clearly, far more must be done for countries to be prepared and ready to respond to natural disasters.

Emergency relief, health care and reconstruction are of great urgency. When floods and intensive rains wash away infrastructure, homes, crops, seed stocks, grain and other reserves, it is crucial to reestablish agriculture without availability of communication infrastructure, adequate social services and accessible rural investments. It is also vital to confront the threat to livelihoods, especially in the absence of insurance mechanisms. Better land-use planning is essential to ensuring that people are not putting up their homes and activities in harm's way.

These calamities have triggered a need for emergency relief aimed at the life-threatening problem of survivors. Therein lies a lesson worth taking more to heart going forward. Too often urgent care could not be provided because critical-care facilities were no longer functioning, or there was no way to access services. While headlines focus on the damage, not enough attention was being given in the reconstruction efforts to the importance of ensuring functioning lifelines -- notably potable water and first aid -- during disasters.

Where basic connectivity to emergency medical care and water continues, reconstruction is that much easier because there are more able-bodied individuals when it is time to pick up the pieces. In Haiti, Chile and other countries, potable water could not be provided to victims in a reasonable time, and emergency medical facilities dropped offline just when needed most. The ability to take early action in critical care also has a cascading impact on the whole recovery process.

This being said, preventive measures can make a difference, although it may require a continuing process. Much can be achieved by making vital installations, such as hospitals and emergency shelters, more disaster-resistant with uninterrupted power supply, a network of protected access routes, and the secure provision of safe water and sanitation. The adequacy of protective embankments has proved to be crucial. The experiences in Colombia and Turkey show that earthquake-resistant building codes, enforcement of construction standards and oversight of materials procurement practices pay off. But in too many places around the world, facilities that are essential for an effective response are tied to networks that are almost guaranteed to fail.

Despite all of these calamities, countries are still not fully prepared to respond adequately when disasters hit them. Some 50 developing countries face recurrent earthquakes, mudslides, floods, hurricanes and droughts, yet many of them do not seem to recognize that they will recur. External agencies often do not acknowledge these risks as a systematic threat to their assistance. For example, almost half of the countries borrowing from the World Bank for disaster response did not mention disaster prevention in their development plans.

This situation must change. If we are ready to invest sizable funds to establish mechanisms to withstand financial crises, we need to do the same with the escalating hazards of nature. Once the tragedy drops off newspapers' front pages, international donors, like the countries, find it hard to stay engaged with prevention efforts. This also means that the world's attention will no longer be fixed on natural disasters until the next big one hits us.

This sad reality is yet another reason to focus also on the immediate goals: when rebuilding lives and livelihoods, ensuring that key structures and embankments that are vital to crisis response have built-in protection and are linked to networks that will not fail them. So when the earth shakes or the waters rise, critical networks can be disaster-resilient -- and the victims do not need to look at each other in desperation to survive.

Vinod Thomas, Director-General and Senior Vice-President, Independent Evaluation Group