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  • 'Culture change needed' to avert growing disaster risk

[LONDON] A culture change is needed if the benefits of development, such as new jobs and hospitals, are not to be destroyed in future natural disasters, according to a report released today in London.

The report, 'Reducing Risks of Future Disasters: Priorities for Decision Makers', published by the UK government, calls on all development stakeholders — including aid and development funders, governments and industry — to consider the implications of their actions on disaster risk and to routinely use the best available evidence on the threat of disasters to inform their decisions.

More concerted action is needed to avert future disasters amid rising risks, the report says. It points out that earthquakes and emerging infectious diseases could have a particularly serious impact on megacities in the near future, as could stronger cyclones in developing countries.

The report also calls for a repository of solutions that have successfully alleviated disaster risk, so that future developments can draw on a library of examples instead of implementing programmes that no-one can be certain will work.

Angela McLean, chair of the report's expert group and a professor at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, said the expert group was surprised by how little information there was about what works.

Brendan Gormley, another member of the expert team, also highlighted the lack of systematic evidence on proven solutions. This is a challenge given that, over the next 30 years, many cities will build major infrastructure for the first time – and this is an opportunity to build disaster resilience, he said.

The report, which examines the period up to 2040, was put together by the expert group based on 18 independently peer-reviewed papers and several expert meetings.

Around 1.3 million people worldwide have died in natural disasters over the past 20 years, mostly drought, earthquakes and storms, the report says. The economic damage from these disasters is equivalent to the total that was spent on overseas development aid over these two decades — or US$2 trillion — it says.

"This is a gross underestimate of the actual damage that disasters do," John Beddington, chief scientific adviser for the UK government, said at the launch.

This is because the indirect and long-term effects of disasters are poorly documented, he said.

Beddington also highlighted the growing variability of weather — and the increasing number of extreme events — driven by climate change.

McLean said that, in the next 30 years, scientists will get much better at knowing when, where and why many disasters happen.

"Storms, floods and droughts could all be fairly reliably forecast within six days by 2040," she said.

Despite improvements, however, McLean said that it will remain difficult to forecast earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. Similarly, our currently variable ability to forecast disease outbreaks in humans, animals and plants will gradually improve, she added.

Tom Mitchell, head of the climate change programme at the Overseas Development Institute, said: "What we haven’t got a good handle on is nationally focused cost-and-benefit analyses [of different potential interventions] … Ministers of finance want to know that information."

Gormley added: "Scientific evidence alone is not enough. It has to be both usable and timely … It has to be taken out of its narrow box."

He said there was a need to learn and build on informal solutions from local communities about how to transfer and spread disaster risk. There was good evidence that "healthy ecosystems can mean large reductions in disaster impacts", he added.

Tim Wheeler, deputy chief scientific advisor at the UK Department for International Development, said: "The report makes it clear that there's an urgent need for improved knowledge in this area".

Mitchell said the "call for a more systematic approach to assess evidence of what works is going to be critical" since the evidence is thin and difficult to gather.

"We need to take a cold hard look at the capacity of science and the capacity to use science in many of the developing [countries]," he said.

"Internationally, we are making big steps in terms of the predictions that science can bring, but until that information is tailored and made available locally in developing countries and the people can use it and feel empowered to do so, then we won't quite be where we want to be."

Link to full report

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