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Meeting the challenges of natural disasters

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by Maxwell Haywood Fri, Oct 10, 2014

The international community celebrates International Day for Disaster Reduction every year on October 13. The annual event celebrates the resilient efforts of human beings in the midst of disasters. This year, the theme of the celebrations is “Resilience is for Life”, with a focus on older persons building resilience to disasters. After the international day has passed, we in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) go back to preparing our nation to effectively address disaster risk.{{more}}

Global view

Disasters and extreme weather-related events are wreaking havoc on lives and property in every region of the world, with profound impact on development. When the representatives of governments and civil society organizations of the Americas, and international organizations met in the Fourth Session of the Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, from May 27 to 29, 2014, they stated clearly in their Communi­qué that “In order to make progress towards eradicating poverty, reducing inequality and achieving sustainable and inclusive development, it is necessary to assess progress and challenges in implementing disaster risk management policies at all territorial and sectorial levels.”

Globally, last year, 2013, was filled with evidence of the occurrences and impact of disasters and extreme weather-related events. There were 330 natural disasters which killed about 21,610 people and 96.5 million people were victims. The largest share of natural disaster deaths was from floods amounting to 45.4 per cent, and storms caused 39.7 per cent of these deaths caused by disasters. Asia, Africa, Europe, and Oceania recorded the highest per cent of natural disasters. Asia, followed by Africa, had the highest per cent of global disaster victims. UNICEF reported that “Every year over the next decade, an estimated 175 million children will be affected by disasters.”

Damage resulting from natural disasters in 2013 amounted to about US$118.6 billion. Countries like Germany, Philippines, China, New Zealand, United States, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, Canada, Mexico and others have experienced costly damages. Due to disasters, developing countries experience a two to 15 per cent of GDP annual loss.

According to the World Bank, “Over 70 per cent of the World Bank’s Country Partnership Strategies recognize natural disasters as a risk to sustainable development, and DRR [Disaster Risk Reduction] has been integrated into our institutional scorecard to monitor progress.”

View of SVG

SVG is impacted heavily by disasters and extreme weather events, with deep implications for the development process. Globally, in 2013, as a result of the December floods of 2014, SVG had one of the highest recorded number of deaths per 100,000 people, equaling 11.89 deaths per 100,000 people. The Philippines is second with 7.88, and St Lucia third with 3.29. In addition, over the past four years, SVG’s losses and damages due to weather-related events amount to over EC$600 million.

Over the past several years, more and more Vincentians are becoming alert to the challenge that it cannot be business as usual when it comes to natural disasters or extreme weather-related events. SVG is building its capacity to manage disasters. Many activities have been conducted to protect and conserve the environment, and to develop the nation’s capacity for effective disaster management. More activities are needed to prepare every village and town to play their role in the disaster management process and environmental protection.

The need for more work is not difficult to see. Natural environment hazards are aided by low environmental consciousness and human beings seeking opportunities for livelihoods. Environmental degradation caused by human beings, such as deforestation and littering, leave communities vulnerable to various hazards. In commenting on the Christmas Eve flooding of December 2013, the editorial of the Searchlight newspaper of Friday 23, 2014 states: “To what extent do our short-term excuses about “survival” undermine our own long-term prospects for sustainable development? The degree of the damage wrought by those floods was certainly exacerbated by our own irresponsible actions in willful deforestation in the mountains, all premised on the need to ‘survive’… We already have the very real threat of climate change to deal with. Negative actions on our part can only worsen the situation.”

The major challenge facing the Vincentian society is reducing the losses resulting from natural disasters and other extreme weather-related events, such as extra heavy rainfall, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, storms, drought, earthquakes, tsunami, etc. There is no alternative but to develop the national capacity to effectively cope with these hazards and their related risks.

Evidence-based disaster management

In these contemporary times, the destructive nature of disasters and extreme weather-related events demand that we approach disaster management from a scientific basis in which data and evidence play a key role in the decision-making process, including implementing, monitoring and evaluating disaster policies, programmes, and projects. There are many efforts in this aspect already, and everything appropriate should be done to promote a culture of making decisions based on data relating to disasters and extreme weather-related events. Disaster risk assessments and management must become the order of the day.

Recently, the National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO) convened a workshop on the Draft Country Document for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) for St Vincent and the Grenadines. This is very crucial because it will build SVG’s capacity to manage disaster risks. NEMO, in a press release reported by the Searchlight Newspaper, states that “The key objectives of the workshop…are to present and revise the draft Country Document for DRR; to identify immediate DRR priorities at the national level; and to identify key actions and next steps for DRR in St Vincent and the Grenadines. The country document for DRR is envisioned to be useful as an important national reference document to guide the design of policies and strategies, promote decision making, and the formulation of DRR actions and activities for bringing about sustainable development, as well as facilitate the establishment of channels for mutual help and cooperation.…”

Back in April of this year, University of the West Indies (UWI) together with the Centro Euro-Mediterraneo per i Cambiamenti Climatici (CMCC), and the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC), started a survey in SVG. Professor Patrick Watson of UWI was reported as saying that the survey aimed to “understand household views on environmental issues affecting the community and the survey results will provide guidance for future public awareness programmes and policy development…the knowledge obtained will also allow government agencies, NGOs and community groups to take appropriate measures to adapt to and, hopefully, minimize the negative impacts identified, which will be to the benefit of all the citizens of St Vincent and the Grenadines.

The National Emergency and Disaster Management Act, 2006 of SVG, highlights the centrality of evidence-based disaster management. The Act mentions the role of the Disaster Management Policy Review, and annual reports.

All of these documents mentioned above are supposed to highlight the nation’s resources in the natural environment and society, and they are supposed highlight the actions to be taken to prevent, prepare for and respond to disasters. Together, these documents form the evidence base of disaster management and development practice in SVG.

Continued vigilance

Continued vigilance of the population, government, private sector, cooperative sector, and civil society is essential. It is necessary to keep assessing and developing the level of preparedness of each national sector and local communities at the village level. Vulnerability and exposure to hazards and disaster risks could only be addressed through preparedness that will help us to forecast, react effectively, and rebuild in the aftermath of a disaster or extreme weather-related event.

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