Breaking the cycle

Didier J. Cherpitel unravels the intricate, insidious relationships between poverty, the environment and disasters

Global figures on the number of people killed by so-called natural disasters are intriguing. Television coverage, concerns over climate change, accelerated soil erosion and the growth of mega-cities would all suggest that things should be getting worse. But statistics show that natural disasters – drought, floods, hurricanes, volcanic activity – now kill about 100,000 people every year, compared to a regular toll of more than 3 million annually in the first 30 years of the 20th century. So is there really a crisis? And, if so, what is it?

Nothing, of course, is ever that simple. Most disasters do not kill instantly. They wreak their havoc by destroying livelihoods rather than lives. A graph for the number of people affected – rather than killed – by disasters shows a totally different picture. The figures jump up and down from year to year depending on whether there is a major flood in China or a hurricane in the Americas – but the trend is ever upward. Fifty years ago an average of around 50 million people a year were affected, today it is 200 million.

The massive killers of the early 20th century have been tamed, but at a price. Famine in India or China no longer kills millions. Cyclones in the Bay of Bengal no longer drown hundreds of thousands. Pandemics no longer lay Europe to waste. But while direct loss of life has been averted, millions of people are now forced to live on marginal lands where their chances of escaping the poverty trap disappear every time a flood or storm surge hits. Those who crowd into the mega-cities of the developing world searching for employment – or attempting to escape from persecution and fear – end up in the most disaster-prone parts of the city: on garbage tips, on unstable steep land, in the river valleys regularly hit by flash floods or in malaria-infested marshes.

Disasters are first and foremost a major threat to development, and specifically to the development of the poorest and most marginalized people in the world. Disasters seek out the poor and ensure they stay poor. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ annual publication, the World Disasters Report, has highlighted the chronic and rapidly increasing vulnerability of poorer countries to disaster.

The relationship between disasters and the environment is evolving and gradually being better understood. It is an insidious one. Take, for example, the flooding along the Mekong River in 2000. These were the worst floods in decades – and came on top of high-level flooding in 1999 and 1998. Why? The monsoon season started early and carried on longer than expected. But was this just a statistical anomaly, or evidence of the effects of climate change? All the climate models suggest that Southeast Asia will see more rainfall and higher river levels as a result of global warming: so what happened in 2000 is likely to become the norm, not the exception.

The upper reaches of the Mekong catchment in Laos, Cambodia and Viet Nam are all subject to extensive logging, much of it illegal and much of it tied up with the funding of paramilitary activity and the opium/heroin trade. This has led to more rapid runoff and increased flash floods which exacerbate the normal annual flooding.

Those on the flood plains who lose their livestock, their standing crop – and the chance to plant the next one – to the waters, watch them recede with a sense of fatalism. They have been driven two notches further down the ladder to inescapable poverty.

For them, investment in local disaster mitigation and preparedness is no more than a pipe dream. A more realistic expectation is that they will fell what few standing trees remain, to sell for firewood. The disaster forces people further into poverty and poverty forces the exploitation of the environment. Governments see their development efforts literally being washed away.

Political force
This vicious cycle can be broken, but only if the governments of disaster-prone countries concede that disasters are a major determinant of development, not just unpredictable dips on the development curve. In Viet Nam, for instance, this is beginning to happen: disaster mitigation is now a major political and economic issue there.

In many places, environmental destruction is a key determinant of the movement of people, whether from the destruction wrought by building new large dams or removing rain forest, or from the reduction in the carrying capacity of the land as pastureland erodes to scrub and wasteland.
The challenge is to keep governments focused on the issues long enough to change economic policy
When people flee and are forced to live in controlled camps, whether as international refugees or internally displaced persons, a whole series of micro-environmental issues comes into play. In Africa, the destruction of forest cover around refugee camps is a real cause for concern, as is the exploitation of habitat reserves for game. Erecting fences and keeping the refugees hemmed in, however, is no solution. They fell the trees to survive, because they need the wood to sell or for cooking. Refugee camps are mini-cities and yet they are run and financed as though they were temporary roadside shelters. They will continue to pose an environmental threat until host governments and the international community are willing to accept the true cost of displacement, whether generated by the environment, war or famine.

Opportunity for change
On a more positive note, disasters sometimes highlight environmental issues which might otherwise go unpublicized. The sheer scale of the destruction and misery often prompts action where years of hidden suffering have failed. After the disaster, there is an opportunity to do things better: to build earthquake-resistant housing; to resettle people away from land-slides; to reforest upland catchments; to change agricultural practice. The opportunity is there, but it can easily be missed. The media focus and the relief efforts around disasters are soon over: they come and go in days or weeks. The challenge for aid agencies, for local representatives and for community groups is to keep the government focused on the issues long enough to change economic policy.

In many ways, this is the real relief effort, not the televisual delivery of shelter and food. Relief from floods next year and the year after will not come from emergency deliveries. It will come from changed agricultural practice, access to credit, more integrated landuse planning and a whole host of issues which require a sustained will to improve the lives of the most vulnerable. Generate that, and you generate the chance really to change the face of disasters

Didier J. Cherpitel is Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

PHOTOGRAPH: Hartmut Schwartzbach/UNEP/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Learning from disaster | Being prepared | The way forward | Breaking the cycle | Flip-flop to catastrophe | Nature's warnings | At a glance | Competition | Insuring against catastrophe | Recreating sustainability | The legacy of conflict | Ask us, involve us | The poor suffer most | Through a slanted lens

Complementary articles in other issues:
Mary Lean: Changing the in-vironment (Culture, values and the environment) 1996
Eileen B. Claussen: Critical coastlines (UNEP 25) 1997
Lester Brown: The era of scarcity is upon us (Food) 1996
Tewolde Egziabher: Safety Denied (Looking Forward) 1999
International Committee of the Red Cross: