Are natural disasters on the rise?

Are natural disasters on the rise?
By Dale Dominey-Howes

Friday, 27 March 2015

dale dominey-howes

Cyclone Lam, Pam and now Nathan – natural disasters have filled our news in recent weeks. They wreak havoc in poor and vulnerable communities and cost billions in recovery and aid funding.

These disasters happen when a natural hazard – such as a cyclone, bushfire or earthquake – damages human systems. They seem to be becoming more frequent and worse – but are they really?

Natural disasters are not so ‘natural’

Some natural hazards occur because of forces outside our control. For example, the movement of Earth’s crustal plates triggers earthquakes and tsunamis. Variation in solar radiation entering the atmosphere and oceans triggers storms in the summertime and blizzards in winter. The movement of energy in Earth’s system is what drives these natural processes.

Despite these normal processes, experts now say there is no such thing as “natural disasters”, for three reasons.

First, humanity is interfering with the Earth system. For example, as we drive anthropogenic climate change we are adding more energy to the system. This increases the probability of more frequent and intense “hydro-meteorological” hazards such as floods, bushfires, heatwaves and tropical cyclones.

Second, we are (mis)managing natural systems. For example, removing the buffering protection of mangroves on the coast means a storm surge can be more disastrous.

Third, our settlements are sprawling out across the Earth’s surface into geographic areas where natural hazards occur. This exposes us to harm and loss when the inevitable happens.

Disasters don’t need to happen

Potentially hazardous events do not need to end in a disaster. Disasters occur because of the intersection of hazard with exposed people and assets that are vulnerable to the hazard. They are characterised by a lack of resilience and poor capacity to cope and respond in the affected area. Without vulnerability there can be no disaster.

For me, disasters are a social construct and are about people. I make no apologies for taking such an anthropocentric view.

The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) and the global EM-DAT disaster database record and assess data on the occurrence of “natural” and “technological” disasters by individual countries and regions. Their annual reports make it possible for us to explore trends over time.

Although the definition of disaster changes between countries and the accuracy of collected data varies across the globe and through time, one trend is clear. Events we label “natural disasters” are occurring more frequently than in the past.

Increasing number of natural disasters (by type) between 1900 and 2012. The total number of disasters shows a significant increase from 1960 onwards and what is most apparent is that the majority are ‘hydro-meteorological’ or weather and climate related. D. Guha-Sapir, R. Below, Ph. Hoyois – EM-DAT: International Disaster Database

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Who or what can we blame?

The big question is does this trend represent a statistical change in the physical occurrence of natural disasters or an increasingly vulnerable global population (or both)?

Ok, I’m going to put my neck on the line here and say that there is no strong evidence that more earthquakes or volcanic eruptions are happening today compared to a century ago.

However, given anthropogenic climate change, it is “more than likely” that the frequency and intensity of hydro-meteorological extreme events have increased. Such was the finding of the most recent IPCC assessment report. That said, the patterns of these physical processes across the globe are highly variable.

Regardless of any change in the fundamental Earth system processes driving extreme events, human activity, environmental mismanagement and variations in resilience and vulnerability are contributing to the increased effects of hazard events. This has led to the declaration of more disasters and ever-increasing human and economic losses. This is clearly illustrated below.

The human and economic costs of disasters 2005 – 2014 UN ISDR/Flickr, CC BY-NC
Estimated damage caused by natural disasters between 1900 and 2012 D. Guha-Sapir, R. Below, Ph. Hoyois – EM-DAT: International Disaster Database

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The poor are hardest hit by disasters

The next question that emerges is: “Are vulnerability and resilience uniform across the globe?” Sadly, the answer is no.

Put bluntly, those that are poor will be the hardest hit and least able to cope. All disaster-related research shows that countries where social and economic capital is limited are the most vulnerable.

Work by our team following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami disaster in Thailand explored how poverty and lack of resources was a major contributor to what made many in coastal communities so vulnerable. Poor and disadvantaged people living in richer countries are also vulnerable.

To date, global data show that Asia is where the most people have been killed (according to EM-DAT more than 26 million since 1904), the greatest losses (more than US$1.2 trillion) have occurred and the most frequent disasters are clustered. Given the rapid development and increasing population of the Asian region, future disaster losses can only be expected to climb. Major social, political and institutional change needs to happen rapidly to reduce vulnerability and increase resilience.

Humans are responsible

Without question, anthropogenic climate change will result in changes in the frequency and severity of hydro-meteorological disasters. However, the changes will not be uniform globally, with some areas experiencing more frequent events, other places less frequent events.

There is significant complexity and uncertainty about these future trends but much research is underway to investigate this issue. For example, in Australia, research suggests tropical cyclones will become less frequent but the severity will increase. By contrast, in the Mediterranean region recent research has suggested significant future variations of rainfall extreme events with some locations likely to experience more rainfall events and others less.

So, yes, the number of (natural) disasters occurring is on the rise but this is because of a complex set of interactions between the physical Earth system, human interference with the natural world and increasing vulnerability of human communities.

Dale Dominey-Howes is Associate Professor in Natural Disaster Geography at University of Sydney. He is a global leader in natural hazards and disaster risk reduction. His research spans the interface between the human and earth environments/sciences – exploring the characteristics of natural hazards (distributions, frequencies & magnitudes) and their impacts on people, communities and human systems. His socially-oriented work examines human hazard knowledge and perception, action and inaction. His goals are to enhance community resilience; reduce losses from natural disasters; and develop appropriate disaster risk reduction strategies. This post was first published by The Conversation.


Every little helps: Microinsurance as disaster risk management tool after Typhoon Haiyan

Every little helps: Microinsurance as disaster risk management tool after Typhoon Haiyan
By Julia Graham

Thursday, 26 March 2015


On the 8th November 2013, Super Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines. By the end of the day, the typhoon would have crossed land six times and left a path of destruction that impacted over 16 million people and displaced almost 4.1 million people.

People in the Philippines are all too familiar with typhoons, with an estimated 24 hitting the country every year. However, in addition to the high winds, the typhoon had an unprecedented storm surge which was responsible for most of the 6,300 casualties. The damage this caused to agriculture and infrastructure is estimated to be around USD 700 million.

The Philippines’ National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan, issued in 2011, is made up of four cornerstones: disaster prevention and mitigation, disaster preparedness, disaster response and disaster rehabilitation. The disaster rehabilitation and recovery section of the plan relates to restoring and improving facilities, livelihoods, living conditions and organisational capacities of affected communities, and reduced disaster risks. It is here that microinsurance – affordable insurance tailored to the needs of low-income populations – should feature strongly, due to its ability to help low-income and vulnerable people finance the rebuilding of property and restarting of livelihoods after a disaster event.

Governments of disaster-prone countries such as the Philippines must primarily focus efforts on disaster prevention and mitigation by building up the infrastructure to reduce vulnerabilities and enhancing capacities, but implementing a comprehensive framework which covers ex-post and ex-ante measures is vital. Microinsurance has yet to be systematically included as a key disaster rehabilitation and recovery tool in the approaches of many emerging economies.

In 2014, the Microinsurance Network, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the promotion of effective and responsible insurance services for low-income people, produced a report with GIZ RFPI looking at how microinsurance performed in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan. With a penetration ratio of 20.6%, the Philippines is widely considered a success story for the nascent microinsurance sector. The study found that at least PHP 532 million (USD 12 million) in microinsurance claims have been paid since the typhoon, with an average claims payout of PHP 4,777 (USD 108). Roughly 50% of this went towards restarting livelihoods, with the other 50% going towards rebuilding houses. Providers, intermediaries and regulators proved flexible and adaptable, meeting the challenges presented by the infrastructural and human cost of the typhoon by building on their strong networks and established relationship with affected communities to process claims as efficiently as possible whilst facing considerable challenges.

Microinsurance is clearly not the only solution to disaster risk management, but with strong microinsurance infrastructure and adaptability as seen in the Philippines, the money from an insurance claims can help to bridge the gap after a disaster event and help prevent low-income people from being pushed into a cycle of poverty.

Read the full report here

Julia Graham is the knowledge and advocacy coordinator of the Microinsurance Network, an international multi-stakeholder platform for microinsurance experts to work together and focus on key areas of development in the sector. Its mission is to promote the development and delivery of effective insurance services for low-income people by encouraging shared learning and facilitating knowledge generation and dissemination.


Ten things to know about the Sendai disaster risk reduction deal

Ten things to know about the Sendai disaster risk reduction deal
By Megan Rowling

Wednesday, 25 March 2015


International agreements – whatever subject they address – are never going to make everyone happy. The same is true for the new global disaster risk reduction plan, adopted after a 40-hour negotiating session in Japan last week.

The Sendai framework is built to last for the next 15 years, and as the first of three major deals due to be struck this year on sustainable development and climate change, it attracted a high level of political interest – certainly more than usual for the theme.

As the talks went down to the wire, there was relief a compromise was reached on tricky issues like targets, finance and climate change. And afterwards, some said the political jostling could be a positive signal that disaster risk reduction is finally getting the attention it deserves.

But some aid agencies, which work with those most vulnerable to disasters, said the new framework had been weakened by the maneuvering, and were especially disappointed it did not contain a concrete goal to boost funding for developing countries to strengthen their disaster prevention and response.

Here are 10 things worth knowing about what’s in the final agreement, and what got left out:

1. Targets: The Sendai framework – unlike its predecessor – includes seven targets intended to drive forward progress on protecting people and assets from extreme weather and other natural and manmade hazards.

These are to “substantially reduce” the numbers of people killed and affected by disasters, as well as damage to infrastructure and services like health and education, and to decrease economic losses – all by 2030.

The others are to increase the number of countries with national and local disaster risk reduction strategies by 2020, enhance international cooperation for developing countries by 2030, and boost access to early warning systems and disaster risk information for the public by 2030.

These targets proved controversial because some countries had wanted them to include specific percentage goals. While those disappeared, timeframes for lowering losses were retained for deaths and the number of affected people. Experts were also pleased that a working group will now be set up to develop indicators to measure progress on the targets – something they argue is sorely needed. 

2. Finance: It was never thought likely that rich nations would be lining up in Sendai to make major new funding announcements for disaster risk reduction measures in developing countries, nor that the new framework would include percentage targets for finance.

But those who had called for more money were disappointed the final deal doesn’t even commit clearly to increasing financial aid, settling on a much vaguer target to “substantially enhance international cooperation to developing countries through adequate and sustainable support”.

Vulnerable countries had wanted to include words such as “additional” and “predictable” with regard to funding, but these were opposed by wealthy governments. Japan did pledge assistance worth $4 billion over the next four years, including training for 40,000 people, but it’s unclear where the money will come from, and how much of it will be loans and technical support in kind.

There are hopes more funds will be promised for disaster risk reduction at an international development financing summit in Ethiopia in July.

3. Climate change: Climate politics burst onto the scene in Sendai – even threatening the prospects of reaching a deal towards the end. That’s perhaps not surprising, when close to 90 percent of disasters are caused by weather and climate extremes, according to the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).

But while Sendai was not the place for working out how to tackle climate change, some developing countries had wanted the disaster deal to address principles of fairness around who is responsible for causing – and thus providing compensation for – global warming, and the losses and damage from its impacts.

The framework acknowledges climate change as “one of the drivers of disaster risk” – language some governments tried to remove – and says it should be tackled across inter-governmental processes while respecting the mandate of the U.N. body that runs the separate climate change negotiations.

Importantly, it makes a link between the level of support provided to developing states, their differing capacities, and the extent to which they will be able to implement the Sendai agreement.

4. Connections with other 2015 deals: Going into the conference, development experts criticised the Sendai draft agreement for weak linkages with the U.N. climate talks, due to produce a binding pact in Paris in September, and the process for hammering out a new set of global development goals, which will come to fruition in September in New York.

Some wanted the targets for disaster risk reduction set in Sendai to be coherent with those in the Sustainable Development Goals – and the agreement proposes indicators be developed in conjunction, which could help. But critics said there is still little substantive on connecting the three processes in the final version of the text.   

5. Nuclear disasters: In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis in 2011, following the tsunami that hit Japan’s northeastern coast, Japanese civil society groups had pushed hard to ensure the new global plan included a reference to man-made and technological hazards, which were only a footnote in the previous Hyogo framework. The Sendai plan states that it applies to disasters caused by these hazards, as well as natural ones – a move described by a Japanese NGO coalition as “great progress”.    

6. Health: There was widespread praise for the much higher profile given to health matters in the Sendai framework. The plan calls for measures to protect people’s health by reducing damage to hospitals and clinics and ensuring medical treatment continues in disasters, as well as tackling the risks of epidemics and pandemics.

This is particularly pertinent in the wake of the year-old Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which has caused huge loss of life and weakened economies, while highlighting the vulnerability of poorly developed health systems.  

7. Human rights: Rights advocates had lobbied for the Sendai framework to take a strong approach to human rights, which are often violated in disasters. The final text says that managing the risk of disasters is aimed at protecting persons and their property, health, livelihoods and productive assets, as well as cultural and environmental assets, “while promoting and protecting all human rights, including the right to development”. This language was welcomed by experts.

8. Displacement: With news before Sendai that the risk of being displaced by disasters has doubled over the past four decades, hopes were high that the new framework would address the issue.

The Sendai agreement notes that 144 million people were forced from their homes over the preceding 10 years by disasters, and urges effective policies to address their situation, including the provision of safe shelter, but does not go into detail on the issue. It also calls on governments to acknowledge the role migrants can play in reducing disaster risk. 

9. Women, children and the disabled: Women’s rights experts welcomed the statement in the Sendai framework that disaster risk policy and practices require a gender perspective, and that women should play a leading role in disaster prevention and response, as well as being given access to sexual and reproductive healthcare in disasters.

Another positive was the call for decision-making to be based on data that is broken down according to gender, age and disability, allowing the impact of disasters on women, children, the elderly and disabled people to be better understood. 

The text also mentions that children and youth must be given the space and the means to contribute their knowledge and skills, and highlights the importance of including and consulting with vulnerable groups.

The Sendai conference was praised for being accessible to people with disabilities, more than 200 of whom participated through the use of Braille documents, sign-language interpretation and transportation for delegates in wheelchairs. 

10. Animals: After two years of lobbying, World Animal Protection said the inclusion in the Sendai plan of the need to keep livestock and working animals safe in disasters is a big achievement that will enable more people to get back on their feet after a disaster strikes.

More than 1 billion of the world’s poorest people rely on animals for food, transport and their livelihoods, and addressing animal protection in the Sendai framework will help governments and communities take animals into account in disaster planning and preparation, the group said.

Megan Rowling is a journalist for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which first published this post here. She covers the latest developments in humanitarian crises, aid, climate change, governance and women’s rights. She specialises in the impacts of climate change on developing countries, and solutions to this growing problem, including disaster risk reduction and climate finance. She has worked to develop the foundation’s reporting on climate change since the mid-2000s. She also edits articles and does web production. Before joining the foundation, Megan was a print and television journalist in Britain, France and Japan. Since the mid-1990s, she has written and reported on-screen for Reuters, the BBC, the Times, the Guardian, New Internationalist, the Daily Yomiuri and Jiji Press, among others, covering economics, business and politics. She also worked for short periods in media relations for the British Red Cross and as a translator. She has a degree in Japanese and a master’s degree in development management.




Disaster-related displacement: time to put knowledge into action

Disaster-related displacement: time to put knowledge into action
By Alfredo Zamudio and Shervin Tadi

Tuesday, 24 March 2015


A report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reveals an increased risk of global displacement caused by disasters, and calls for a stronger link between displacement and disaster risk reduction. If this link was better understood and addressed within policy frameworks, millions of people could be saved from having to flee their homes and losing their livelihoods.

The report, “Disaster-related displacement risk: Measuring the risk and addressing its drivers”, coincided with the 3rd UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Sendai, Japan, where governments adopted a global plan to reduce disaster risk and build upon the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) 2005-2015.

Every year disasters newly displace an average of 27 million people. Furthermore, the number of mega-events that displace more than three million people has been increasing. These mega-events are responsible for the overall increase in displacement risk.

For sudden-onset hazards, the estimated risk will be highest in both absolute terms and when population size is accounted for in South-east Asia (including China) with South Asia second.


Drivers of displacement

The primary driver of increased exposure since the 1970s has been rapid, unplanned development in hazard-prone areas. This rapid urbanisation concentrates large numbers of vulnerable people in dangerous locations. Not surprisingly most of the 20 countries with the highest levels of per capita displacement risk have experienced the fastest urban growth in the last decade including China, the Philippines, and Niger.

In order to establish a stronger link between displacement and disaster risk reduction, the main drivers of displacement must be understood better.

The report outlines the main drivers of disaster-related displacement risk as:

  • Population growth in hazard-prone areas
  • Rapid and unplanned urbanisation
  • Unequal distribution of wealth
  • Weak governance and state failure
  • Climate change


Due to the combination of these drivers more people are at risk of being displaced than ever before.

Given the magnitude of the problems that are in front of us, one policy alone will not solve everything. It is vital for policy makers to address the five main drivers of disaster-related displacement simultaneously.

Although climate change may not be responsible for significant displacement in the present, it could escalate displacement risk in the future by increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, and through numerous indirect ways. Climate change can affect food security via agricultural and fisheries production and changes in global food prices and the sustainability of island tourism.

The way forward

Disasters must no longer be perceived as ‘natural’ events, but instead as something in which humans can exert influence, prevent and prepare for. Zamudio added that, “now more than ever is the time for governments to adopt national and global plans to address these main drivers of displacement.”

For the first time in history we know that certain disasters can be avoided and where they are most likely to strike. This knowledge needs to be translated into action, as soon as possible—and we all have a role to play.

The report concluded that most measures taken to reduce disaster risk – such as the adoption and enforcement of land use plans and stronger building codes, diversifying and strengthening the livelihoods of the rural and urban poor – will also reduce displacement risk. If displacement was addressed within disaster risk reduction and climate change agreement plans millions of people could be saved from having to flee their homes and losing their livelihoods.

Alfredo Zamudio is Director of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, while Shervin Tadi is its Communications Officer. A full copy of the report is available here. This post was first published on

We leave Sendai with a new global deal on disaster risk, but does it go far enough?

We leave Sendai with a new global deal on disaster risk, but does it go far enough?
By Emily Wilkinson

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

 Emily Wilkinson

No one going into the Sendai negotiations was in any doubt that there would be sticking points. But on the final day of the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, having stayed up all night, delegates were still at loggerheads on three major issues. Whether ‘conflict’ should be considered a driver of risk; the demand for ‘technology transfer’ from rich to poor countries; and international finance to reduce disaster risk. There were moments when it seemed like the whole agreement could fall apart.

This edge-of-the-seat stuff was not trailed by commentators ahead of the conference. Until recently, Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) was considered a fringe issue left to emergency mangers and aid workers. The last conference in Hyogo ten years ago attracted little attention from government ministers. This time, the Japanese Prime Minister, UN Secretary General and over 25 other heads of state showed up.

Attendees hoped for something aspirational, freed from the constraints of legally binding agreements – unlike the Paris climate deal due later this year, where countries will sign commitments on reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the final text lacked teeth, mirroring the horse trading and compromise that characterises climate change negotiations.

Before the conference began, my colleagues and I at the Overseas Development Institute identified a number of success factors for Sendai. The actual outcomes give cause for both celebration and concern.

Some positive results

First the good news: We got a deal! This was no mean feat given the many points of contention and slow progress on agreeing principles and actions. Significantly, the agreement includes a set of seven global targets for reducing disaster risk, paving the way for more concerted efforts to measure progress.

Another upside was that delegates broadly accepted that particular types of governance arrangements are needed to incentivise risk management. Countries agreed to refer to “weak institutional arrangements” as risk drivers and saw the need to strengthen ‘disaster risk governance’ to manage risk. This is important as a guiding principle. It recognises the political nature of reducing risk, which requires greater transparency, accountability and the participation of stakeholders at all levels.

Some less good news

One major drawback is that the targets are a bit vague. One target talks about ‘substantially’ reducing numbers affected by disaster – but what does ‘affected’ mean? How much is substantial? And shouldn’t we explicitly mention the most vulnerable? Another target refers to the number of disaster risk reduction strategies. This means little as most countries already have a plan – the problem is the quality of these plans and the lack of public investment to back them up. This target could have gone a lot further on the mandatory inclusion of risk assessments in national and local planning processes.

Another disappointment was the lack of coherence with other global deals in 2015. References to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the climate change agreement were removed from all sections on implementation, leaving the final text with few links to the post-2015 agenda. This reflected an obvious desire on the part of the G20 to not commit too much too soon and set any precedents.

Unfortunately, conflict was not mentioned anywhere in the agreement. Its inclusion was always going to cause tension, particularly because the draft text coupled it with ‘foreign occupation situations’. Disasters and conflict are often correlated, so the notable absence of conflict (in the text) was clearly more political than technical.

Too much emphasis was placed on international finance over domestic resources. Such discussions were also highly politicised. The G77 Group of developing countries called for ‘additional’ and ‘predictable’ resources to reduce disaster impacts, while G20 countries tried to avoid language around ‘responsibility’. The result was insufficient attention on improving national capacity to mobilise resources.

An unforeseen hurdle

The need to transfer technology from rich to poor countries appeared as a major stumbling block threatening to put the whole agreement at risk. Some countries felt that such a statement could undermine Intellectual Property (IP) regimes and called for a caveat that technology transfer should be ‘mutually agreed’. Thankfully, good sense prevailed. Delegates agreed that IP issues were sufficiently covered in other fora and the critical issue of technology transfer was not watered down.

The road ahead

Ultimately, how the Sendai framework is implemented over the next 15 years is more important that the text itself.

The challenge is to maintain the political momentum generated at Sendai. Strong language on enhancing international cooperation and technological transfer will now have to be followed up, including at the Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa this July. Hard work also needs to start on developing a detailed set of indicators and support is needed to help countries collect data and measure progress. The final verdict on Sendai? Ask me again in 2030.

Emily Wilkinson is a Research Fellow in the Climate and Environment Programme at the Overseas Development Institute. She has worked for 15+ years in the analysis of collective responses to environmental hazards and leads research on disaster risk governance for the Strengthening Resilience in Volcanic Areas (STREVA) project. Emily is Head of Research for the DFID-funded Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters Programme (BRACED) and Technical Advisor to the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) on disaster risk management.

Will the UN’s disaster risk framework withstand a changing climate?

Will the UN’s disaster risk framework withstand a changing climate?
By Camilla Born

Tuesday, 24 March 2015


Reducing disaster risk is probably something to write home about – right? Not according to the limited coverage of last week’s Sendai based UN negotiations of the second Hyogo framework for disaster risk reduction (DRR) it’s not. Despite the heartfelt plea from Vanuatu’s President as Cyclone Pam hit his homeland, the international agreement failed to make the headlines. While an updated and improved framework for action on disaster risk reduction was agreed, this lack of attention begs the question: are we ready for an increasing number of disasters from a changing climate?

What does the second Hyogo framework for action say about climate change?

Practitioners, community organisations, DRR/ humanitarian professionals, multilateral organisations and parliamentarians were all for facing the realities of climate risk last week but government negotiators became tangled in the messy web of climate politics. In UN climate negotiations the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ (CBDR) places more responsibility on the shoulders of developed countries which began polluting first, but under Hyogo no such principle exists. Developing countries fearful of accepting greater responsibility for addressing climate change without international support kicked discussions on climate change firmly back to the UNFCCC.

The second Hyogo framework does acknowledge climate change as a challenge. It also recognises that addressing climate change under the UNFCCC is one way for improving disaster risk reduction. Where it falls short is in how to operationalise disaster risk reduction in the context of a changing climate. As the climate changes and the number of disasters increase, the tools for preventing disasters will need to evolve. Even if a pathway to fulfilling the 2C obligation is locked down at the UN climate negotiations in Paris this December, we’ll need greater capacity for disaster risk reduction to cope with even this level of warming. When the framework expires 15 years from now, the world will be a very different place; but this agreement could fool you otherwise. It hints at a more challenging future but does not tackle it head on.

Cyclone Pam – a case study for international response

As negotiations got underway in Sendai, Cyclone Pam engulfed the clutch of Pacific Islands known as Vanuatu. Their President who was attending the negotiations stumbled over his words as he called on the international community for support. The storm, one of the most intense ever seen in the Pacific, wiped out all development gains made in recent years, he said.

A call to action was promptly placed by OCHA, and support was pledged from Australia, New Zealand, the UK, France and the EU. Aid agencies began boarding flights and a reported 100+ NGOs arrived in the archipelago, bringing supplies and manpower to deal with the clear-up.

A national disaster rarely stays national for long; the international community reliably intervene and offer support. But as the warming climate multiplies the number of weather-related disasters hitting the planet, can we sustain this type of response? In Sendai last week this question went unanswered.

Business as usual doesn’t exist anymore – even at the UN

The science is clear; the planet has warmed by 0.8C and is set to continue. What we know for certain is – there is no business as usual. The international community needs to start wising up to inevitable change. Our assumptions in development, humanitarian response and volumes of support needed to cope are shifting. Understanding what responses are needed is challenging. But at present no one is responsible for informing these choices.

Pushing climate discussions back to the UNFCCC may have quelled troublesome politics in disaster discussions but we can’t ignore the fact that the planet hasn’t stopped warming. The UN system remains underinformed of the consequences. To date the UNFCCC has provided an anchor to mitigation discussions for limiting climate change but sidelined discussions on adapting to the changing climate.

On the fringes of last week’s disaster talks delegates were heard questioning whether negotiations would have been different if they had been held after the Paris climate talks. If this were to be the case Paris would need to succeed in creating a regime that better articulates the implications of the warming climate. Not only that, it will have to hold the power to prompt reform across the international community.

Camilla Born is Senior Researcher in Climate Diplomacy at the London office of E3G, an independent, non-profit organisation operating in the public interest to accelerate the global transition to sustainable development. E3G’s Climate Diplomacy programme focuses on how to construct high leverage political interventions which can shape an ambitious outcome in 2015 and beyond. Camilla has been developing and testing political economy analysis in key emitting countries and working with the climate diplomacy team to translate this into political scenarios for the global deal in 2015. The climate diplomacy teams works closely with governments and civil society to provide political strategy and global risk analysis to their international climate objectives, to become more effective and deliberate in delivering an ambitious international outcome. Since early 2011 she has worked for the UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC) on a number of projects locally, nationally and internationally. This post was first published by

Underfunded, underprepared, underwater? European cities at risk

Underfunded, underprepared, underwater? European cities at risk
By Rosalind Cook and Nick Mabey

Thursday, 19 March 2015


A lack of responsibility and funding leaves the majority of European cities unprepared to deal with the worst impacts of climate change. Continued government inaction could see our economic hubs face billions of Euros in damages each year by the second half of the century.

As delegations of cities and regional authorities met in Sendai to discuss how they can better protect themselves from the impacts of natural disasters at the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, a new analysis by E3G highlighted how ill prepared European cities are to deal with the growing risks from climate impacts.

“Underfunded, Underprepared, Underwater? Cities at Risk”, which brings together for the first time the different pieces of knowledge on climate risks to European cities, finds a lack of power, funding, capacity and information leave regional authorities incapable to step up to the responsibilities handed to them by their national governments.

With 78% of European citizens living in cities and 85% of the EU’s GDP being generated in these economic hubs, the importance of effective climate risk management cannot be overestimated. The infrastructure failures caused by hurricane Sandy in New York in 2012 and the huge economic costs induced by the eight meter-high floods witnessed in Dresden during the 2013 Elbe flooding give a preview of the complex failures that are becoming the “new normal” which cities must navigate.

Over the past three decades, Europe has seen a 60% increase in extreme weather events. In early 2014, flooding and winter storms caused an estimated €20bn in economic damages in the UK alone. The 2003 summer heat wave caused between 55,000 and 70,000 deaths across Europe. Experts estimate that, unless action is taken now, economic costs to EU cities could reach over €190bn annually by 2070.

Yet, despite will and best efforts, many cities are unable to protect themselves against these risks, as they are working on limited resources and with no guidance. Governments are shifting responsibility for climate risk management to city administrations, but do not provide them with powers to act. On the contrary, many cities have faced budget cuts from their central governments over the past five years.

The lack of assistance cities receive from their central governments threatens the well-being of our citizens and economy. It is absolutely fundamental to establish now how cities can be better supported.

The report proposes several solutions to address the current shortcomings. First and foremost, governments must be clearer on who is responsible for managing climate risks and ensure that national and regional infrastructure investments are consistent with a 2, 3 or 4°C warmer world. As part of this transition, new duties on public bodies must be introduced, and companies need to disclose the physical and economic risks from climate change to the public, their shareholders and their operations.

Most businesses don’t include climate risks in business strategy – but if risks are not disclosed they cannot be properly managed. It’s time for an honest dialogue on what climate risk means for business and how governments and cities can assist in managing them.

Rosalind Cook is Senior Policy Advisor and Nick Mabey, Chief Executive, of E3G, an independent, non-profit European organisation operating in the public interest to accelerate the global transition to sustainable development. The report ‘Underfunded, Underprepared, Underwater? Cities at risk’ can be found on E3G’s website at 

Managing disaster risks can bring other benefits, even if catastrophe never strikes

Managing disaster risks can bring other benefits, even if catastrophe never strikes
By Tom Tanner

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Tom Tanner csmall

 This week, the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan kicked off a pivotal year for disasters, climate and development. 2015 is playing host to an exciting mix of ideas, politics and pragmatism as new global deals are also struck on development finance, sustainable development goals, and climate change.

These agreements will all influence the resilience of societies and economies to withstand disaster shocks and other more gradual stresses. But while much attention is likely to focus on targets, international finance, and national action, we need to keep sight of the key challenge: how can we incentivise investment in managing disaster risk?

For some, the main driver of action involves getting the overarching targets and indicators right, and this is likely to likely to play a major role in the Sendai negotiations. For others, incentives for action are primarily a resourcing issue, as investment before disasters strike remains a fraction of humanitarian spending after the event. International financing for disaster risk reduction has been highly erratic and has totalled less than 0.4% of overall aid, with most resources flowing to a small number of middle-income countries. There are some reasons for optimism however, from the commitments to finance in the UN Green Climate Fund to the growth in domestic resources being mobilised for tackling disasters and adaptation to climate change.

Those with a more political view of DRR have highlighted the range of perverse incentives that constrain pre-emptive action on resilience building. Managing disaster risk tends to lag behind other priorities, with benefits occurring over timescales that are longer than political cycles, often with intangible actions that are more difficult to sell to voters than more visible post-disaster support.

But what if it also comes down to not adding up the costs and benefits of disaster risk management in full? For example, the decision to invest in a flood control measure is usually based on a comparison of the costs of building a levy against the benefits of avoiding flood damaged homes and economic disruption. But does this ignore the benefits that would occur if the waters never rise?

The report Unlocking the triple dividend of resilience launched by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in Sendai in partnership with the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) spells out how investments can yield a triple dividend. Adding to growing understanding of the multiple benefits of pre-emptive action through a ‘resilience dividend’, this argues that although saving lives and avoiding disaster damages remains crucial, the sheer risk of a disaster can itself cause economic inefficiency and losses even before disaster strikes.

A high expectation of disasters – known as ‘background risk’, as well as the actual experience of disaster events, makes individuals less willing to take positive decisions to innovate and invest in certain areas and activities. For example, an investor looing to set up a factory in Bangkok might be more cautious to do so without being sure of the flood management measures in place. Background risk also distorts labour markets. For example, if a households in Bangladesh has to take up multiple back-up jobs in case flooding damages one of the sources of income, then they are unable to specialise in the most productive (and best paid) job.

Disaster risk management measures can help reduce background risk, with households and firms more likely to take higher-risk and higher-return investment decisions as a consequence, helping to drive economic growth and poverty reduction. Reducing background risk also helps governments plan for the long term and attract investment, without worrying about the sudden shocks to revenues and government spending that disasters can bring. A third dividend is also generated by investments in resilience, as even without a disaster events, these often deliver social, environmental and economic co-benefits, such as shelters being used as schools or training centres, or biodiversity gains from tree planting on landslide-prone hill slopes.

If we fail to make the business case for investment in disaster risk management, disasters will continue to frustrate and even reverse development progress. By highlighting dividends and co-benefits even in the absence of a disaster event, and by linking DRR investments with the agendas that most matter, such as jobs, growth, security and health, we can scale up and mainstream investments across all sectors so that in future communities can better weather the storm.

The triple dividend of disaster risk management

Triple Dividend Figure

Tom Tanner is a Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute. He leads ODI’s work on adaptation and resilience. He is a development geographer with research interests in the politics of climate change policy processes; organisational change; poverty, vulnerability and climate adaptation; children and disasters; and building resilience in urban contexts. He has 20 years of experience as a researcher, policy maker, practitioner, and negotiator in UN conventions on climate and desertification.





Disaster risk and climate threats: taking action to create better financial solutions

Disaster risk and climate threats: taking action to create better financial solutions
By Olivier Mahul

Thursday,19 March 2015


 As the people of Vanuatu begin the painstaking task of assessing the damage to their homes, businesses, and their communities in the wake of Cyclone Pam, another assessment is underway behind the scenes.

Given the intensity of the category 5 storm and the reports of severe damage, the World Bank Group is now exploring the possibility of a rapid insurance payout to the Government of Vanuatu under the Pacific Catastrophe Risk Assessment and Financing Initiative (PCRAFI).

The Pacific catastrophe risk insurance pilot stands as an example of what’s available to protect countries against disaster risks. The innovative risk-pooling pilot determines payouts based on a rapid estimate of loss sustained through the use of a risk model.

The World Bank Group acts as an intermediary between Pacific Island countries and a group of reinsurance companies – Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance, Sompo Japan Insurance, Tokio Marine and Nichido Fire Insurance and Swiss Re. Under the program, Pacific Island countries – such as Vanuatu, the Cook Island, Marshall Islands, Samoa and Tonga – were able to gain access to aggregate risk insurance coverage of $43 million for the third (2014-2015) season of the pilot.
Japan, the World Bank Group, and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) partnered with the Pacific Island nations to launch the pilot in 2013. Tonga was the first country to benefit from the payout in January 2014, receiving an immediate payment of US $1.27 million towards recovery from Cyclone Ian. The category 5 cyclone hit the island of Ha’apai, one of the most populated of Tonga’s 150 islands, causing $50 million in damages and losses (11 percent of the country’s GDP) and affected nearly 6,000 people.

Globally, direct financial losses from natural disasters are steadily increasing, having reached an average of $165 billion per year over the last 10 years, outstripping the amount of official development assistance almost every year. Increasing exposure from economic growth, and urbanization—as well as a changing climate—are driving costs even further upward. In such situations, governments often find themselves faced with pressure to draw funding away from basic public services, or to divert funds from development programs.

Impact of Natural Disasters on Selected Beneficiary Groups, and Development Solutions offered by Disaster Risk Finance

Source: Disaster Risk Financing and Insurance (DRFI) Program, a partnership of the World Bank Group and the Global Facility for Disaster Risk Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), March 2015

Investing in Innovative Financial Solutions

The World Bank Group and other partners have been working together successfully on innovative efforts to scale up disaster risk finance. One important priority is harnessing the knowledge, expertise and capital of the private sector. Such partnerships in disaster risk assessment and financing can encourage the use of catastrophe models for the public good, stimulating investment in risk reduction and new risk-sharing arrangements in developing countries.

The Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF) is another good example of the benefits of pooled insurance schemes, and served as the model for the Pacific pilot. Launched in 2007, this first-ever multi-country risk pool today operates with sixteen participating countries, providing members with aggregate insurance coverage of over $600 million with 8 payments made over the last 8 years totaling of US$32 million. As a parametric sovereign risk transfer facility, it provides member countries with immediate liquidity following disasters.

We also know that better solutions for disaster risk management are powered by the innovation that results when engineers, sector specialists, and financial experts come together to work as a team. The close collaboration of experts in the World Bank Group has led to the rapid growth of the disaster risk finance field, which complements prevention and risk reduction.

Drawing on more than 15 years of experience, the World Bank Group and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) are partnering with governments, private sector actors, and regional entities in more than 60 countries to establish the buffers that help countries manage these financial shocks more efficiently. As a result of those efforts, Panama became the first country in the world to adopt a comprehensive strategic framework for disaster risk financing by law in 2014. The framework is forging a nationwide consensus to pursue evidence-driven disaster risk reduction, improve budget planning and invest in disaster risk management.

Lessons learned from these experiences, along with many others around the world, are highlighted in the first operational framework for disaster risk financing and insurance. This framework guides policymakers through a set of steps to design the shape of the country’s disaster risk financing strategy, based on the country’s objectives.

Working Together on the Way Forward

Strengthening financial resilience against natural disasters is a part of the international conversation on resilience this week as governments, development agencies, civil society organizations, private sector representatives, and other stakeholders in the disaster risk management arena come together at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Sendai, Japan. WCDRR will launch a new international framework — a successor to the Hyogo Framework for Action (2005-2015) which aims to guide the implementation of disaster risk management efforts worldwide and to spur other critical upcoming discussions on the topic.

Developing sustainable and cost-effective financial protection strategies requires further strengthening of such collaborative efforts between the different actors involved. Working together, we can devise the right tools and instruments to build financial resilience across all levels of society.

Olivier Mahul is the Program Manager of the World Bank’s Disaster Risk Financing and Insurance Program, which is co-sponsored by the World Bank, the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), the Ministry of Finance of Japan, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands. This program mainstreams disaster risk financing and insurance within the disaster risk management and climate change adaptation agenda in developing countries. Since he joined the World Bank in 2003, Olivier has been involved in developing disaster risk financing and insurance solutions in more than 40 countries including Colombia, Costa Rica, Vietnam, Indonesia, Mongolia, India, Mexico, etc. Olivier was closely involved in the product development of the World Bank CAT DDO, a contingent credit line that provides immediate liquidity to World Bank member countries in the aftermath of natural disasters. The CAT DDO has been approved for several countries, including Colombia, Costa Rica and the Philippines. Olivier is one of the key architects of the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility, which provides the Caribbean island states with parametric insurance against major natural disasters. He is currently co-leading the Pacific Catastrophe Risk Assessment and Financing Initiative, which offers the Pacific island countries risk assessment and modeling tools to guide their disaster risk management decisions and their disaster risk financing strategies. Olivier is one of the program designers of the Mongolia Index-based Livestock Insurance Program, an index-based livestock mortality insurance program against extreme weather events. Olivier also provides the Government of India with advisory services on the reform of the India’s National Agricultural Insurance Scheme, the world’s largest crop insurance program in terms of farmers insured. Olivier holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Toulouse School of Economics and post-doctorates from Wharton Business School and University of California at Berkeley. Olivier has authored more than 40 publications in international journals and won several academic awards. He recently co-authored two books: “Catastrophe Risk Financing in Developing Countries: Principles for Public Intervention” (with J. David Cummins) and “Government Support to Agricultural Insurance: Challenges and Options for Developing Countries” (with Charles Stutley).

Fifteen resilience-building action points for 2015 and the 15 years beyond

Fifteen resilience-building action points for 2015 and the 15 years beyond
By Loy Rego

Thursday, 19 March 2015


I have a number of reflections drawn from the last three decades of disaster reduction work inspired by the Asian catastrophes, whose decadal anniversaries we have recently commemorated, on the fifteen minimum standards we need to set for ourselves to achieve what we need in the coming decade and a half:

  1. Effective, well functioning, government-led, multi-stakeholder institutional arrangements for resilience planning and implementation to tackle disaster and climate risks, at multiple levels in each country
  2. Well resourced programs to support implementation from national budgetary resources, enhanced by locally mobilised contributions and supplemented by external resources
  3. An early warning system (EWS) that reaches at risk people in a timely manner with understandable messages
  4. EWS built on a backbone of local volunteers delivering periodic public education about the system, and protective actions by individuals and communities to save lives and livelihood assets and locally appropriate protective infrastructure to evacuate people and safeguard livelihood assets
  5. A national disaster and climate risk assessment system that can be disaggregated down to comprehensible risk maps for local jurisdictions, in formats that aid risk informed decision making by local authorities and the people at risk
  6. Preparedness plans at multiple levels that are developed in an inclusive manner with roles defined and confirmed for all stakeholders, which are well resourced from local budgets and
  7. Readiness at multiple levels maintained through well trained and practiced local authorities, emergency service personnel and local volunteers and a system of periodic drills and exercises
  8. Effective land use planning and development regulation at both ecosystem level and each administrative level that respects the protective function, and the interconnectedness of ecosystems across administrative boundaries
  9. National Building codes enforced by local authorities appropriate to local hazard profile; with professional capacities of construction sector personnel built; and shaped by a demand from homeowners; with priority assistance given to those in most at risk areas living in poor quality housing.
  10. Climate and disaster proofing of local livelihoods with adaptation strategies devised and implemented that are based on localized risk assessments.
  11. All new schools and hospitals built and maintained to appropriate standards of hazard resilience and, with existing schools and hospitals assessed, repaired and retrofitted to these standards
  12. Special attention be paid of the special needs and vulnerabilities of children, women, aged, people with disability, ethnic and linguistic minorities, dalits in all preparedness plans and risk reduction programs, while welcoming and valuing the leadership they bring to their own communities and multi stakeholder settings
  13. Special attention to developing and implementing risk reduction strategies for low frequency high severity risks from earthquakes, tsunamis and technological hazards.
  14. Disaster and climate resilience be effectively integrated into national and sub-national sustainable development strategies and programs, especially the national programs to implement the Sustainable Development Goals
  15. Ensure that the major group system based multi stakeholder multi constituency engagement in the development of HFA2 be transformed into continuing involvement in its implementation at national and local levels and in related resilience building institutional arrangements.

Let us not be constrained by the HFA 2, should it not contain some of these action points. Let us continue to pursue them by patient, determined efforts community by community, district by district, province by province , nation by nation in a persistent people led, people centred movement for resilience

Loy Rego is Technical Advisor, Resilience and the SDGs, Researcher and Learning Practitioner, at the MARS Practitioners Network. MARS stands for Mainstreaming Adaptation, Resilience and Sustainability into development and daily life.  Loy has a 34-year career in multi hazard disaster preparedness, risk reduction and resilience building, climate change adaptation, sustainable development, poverty eradication and occupational/public safety. He has been based in Yangon since October 2013 where he works as an independent DRR Practitioner, consulting with UNISDR, ADPC, Malteser International, OXFAM, UNESCO/IOC, SDC and Peace Winds Japan. He serves as Volunteer Technical Advisor (TA) to Myanmar Red Cross Society and the Asia Pacific Partnership of National Apex Bodies on Sustainable Development, TA Group Member of Red Cross Global Disaster Preparedness Center, and member of DRR Working Group of Myanmar and the UNOCHA convened IASC Working group to revise the Inter Agency Contingency Plan for Myanmar. In New York from 2011 to 2013 he served as volunteer/ advisor to the Global Call for Action against Poverty (GCAP) on MDG-SDG linkages in the post 2015 development agenda, and a member of the Beyond 2015 GCAP UN Working Group in their advocacy with the Open Working Group on the SDGs, the HLP on Post 2015 and the UNGA. During this time he undertook consultancies as facilitator of the first UNISDR online dialogue on the post 2015 DRR Framework (Aug 2012 to Jan 2013), co-author of the Mayors handbook developed by the UNISDR Resilient cities campaign and did a lesson learning review and evaluation commissioned by UNDP on the Global Risk Identification Program (GRIP). He supported the Government of Sri Lanka in organising a side event at the Rio+20 conference of 2012 that launched the “AP Partnership of National Apex Bodies to accelerate implementation of National Sustainable Development Strategies”. Mr. Rego worked from 1996 to 2011 at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC), most recently as its Deputy Executive Director and as head of secretariat of the Regional Consultative Committee for DRR(comprising NDMOs of 26 Asian countries) from 2000 to 2010.