Learning from past experience


The last two decades have produced some powerful lessons. More lives and personal property will be saved, if even modest investments are made in reducing vulnerabilities to natural hazards and preventing natural disasters.  Studies have shown that for every one US dollar spent on risk reduction measures, roughly 10 to 30 can be spared in post-disaster recovery and reconstruction expenditures. The economic and financial returns on risk reduction could be even higher, if we consider that most of the money spent on post-disaster recovery and reconstruction is secured through loans that often carry higher interest rates than the original loans used to build the damaged social and economic infrastructure.


The economic impact of natural disasters goes way beyond the loss of crops and economic infrastructure, setting back decades of planning for development. With losses estimated at about US$5.5 billions and nearly 11,000 deaths, Hurricane Mitch hit Central America hard, setting back the development plans of all Central American countries. Furthermore, recent events prove that impacts cross state and international borders, as Hurricane Katrina taught us after hitting three of the poorest states of the US, but still resulting in significant losses for the nation’s economy. Ninety-five percent of the refining capacity of the State of Louisiana was affected, representing a 30% reduction in the US’ refining capacity. This, in turn, spilled over to cause a loss of about US$150 billion of the country’s external trade in oil, steel, grain, and other products; in addition to the significant impacts in the fiscal accounts of the nation. In the end, Katrina impacted GDP growth in Latin America, since exports to the US –from that region, was significantly reduced.

Another evident, but nonetheless noteworthy lesson, is the fact that the poorest are hit the hardest. In the case of Katrina, New Orleans was the city most affected, with poverty rates of 18.4% compared to the national average of 10.9%. Hurricane Mitch affected the municipalities in Nicaragua with the highest levels of poverty, especially in the rural areas. “According to the FISE (Fondo de Inversion Social de Emergencia) classification, of the 58 poorest municipalities in the country, 40 are located in the provinces worst affected by Hurricane Mitch” (UNDP 1998). In Honduras, the most humble communities such as those of the Municipality of Choloma, La Lima and El Progreso, were the most affected.

Water-related disasters account for 90%, of them, according to the Second UN Report on World Water Development. According to the IFRC World Disaster Report in 2005, floods affected more than 74 million people, while windstorms accounted for 56 million. And during the 1990’s, in South America, natural disasters caused nearly 70 thousands deaths of which more than half was from flooding. The 2003 floods in Argentina were the largest in 500 years to hit that country’s north-central region, displacing more than 100,000 people and causing nearly US$1 billion in damage.

According to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, new observations and related modeling of greenhouse gases, solar activity, land surface properties and some aspects of aerosols have improved the quantitative estimates of radiative forcing. This, in turn, allowed scientists to conclude that the anthropogenic contribution to the global warming –mainly from fossil fuel and land-use change, is significant, and it is increasing the intensity frequency and duration of droughts and floods. Eleven of the last 12 years (1995-2006) rank among the 12 warmest on instrumental record since 1850. This increase in temperature, which results in heavy precipitation events that are likely to increase in frequency, will augment the flood risk. In the course of the century, water supplies stored in glaciers and snow-cover are projected to decline, reducing water availability.

So, there is no doubt of the need to reduce emissions, and implement measures and practices to adapt. However, as the Summary for Policymakers of the IPCC Working Group II suggests, a mix of strategies that include mitigation, adaptation, technological development and research needs to be put in place. Moreover, adaptive capacity needs to be increased, by including land-use planning and infrastructure design considerations in development plans and policies, and by including measures to reduce vulnerability in existing disaster risk reduction strategies.

Consistent with RISK-MACC's mandates and directives that have emerged from the Summit of the Americas Process and the General Assembly’s resolutions; the DSD Program focuses on reducing vulnerability, and on risk-management and prevention. It aims to build local capacity, support risk assessment and awareness-raising, and create more resilient local communities –from building more resilient infrastructure to integrate natural disaster risk considerations in land-use planning, and addressing the aftermath of natural disasters, particularly, related to job losses and decreases in income and production. Consequently, increasing capacity to adapt to Climate Change and Climate Variability, considering particularly El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon, and Climate Change scenarios, is also pivotal to RISK-MACC.                                                                   





This page was last updated on Wednesday September 29, 2010.