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Natural disasters forced 19 million people to flee their homes in 2014 — and climate change is set to increase this number. That’s the conclusion of a report published last month by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). [1] With people estimated to be 60 per cent more likely to be displaced by disasters today than they were in the 1970s, what can vulnerable countries do to better prepare themselves? Turn to Cuba, recommends William Lacy Swing, director-general of the International Organization for Migration, in a Reuters article on the report.

The Caribbean nation is often hit by severe weather, particularly hurricanes. But due to a “multidimensional process” of disaster preparedness, the country excels at weathering the storms that wreak destruction on its island neighbours, says Alexander Isakov, disaster response specialist at Emory University, United States.

“The Cubans have a long history of sharing their knowledge and expertise in disaster preparedness and response with their Caribbean neighbours, and globally.”

Alexander Isakov, Emory University, United States

Isakov has frequently visited Cuba to learn more about its disaster response mechanisms. He tells me that it’s not actually tangible things such as early warning systems and well-resourced rescue teams that are the essential to disaster preparedness. If this were the case, then wealthier countries such as the United States would be less affected than they tend to be, he says.

Instead, the much poorer nation of Cuba eclipses the US and others when it comes to minimising damage, displacement and fatalities from natural disasters. Comparing the devastation caused by Hurricane Flora in 1963 with more recent storms shows the effectiveness of the system Cuba developed as a result: Hurricane Flora killed 1,200 people on the island; three major storms in 2008 left 600,000 homeless but killed just seven people.

And the key to this success, Isakov says, is Cuba’s “culture of preparedness”, which stresses individual awareness and the need for communities to mobilise at a grass-roots level. Because future disasters are inevitable, the government has crafted a strategy that emphasises taking the initiative rather than merely reacting to disasters, and focuses on the role of citizens, businesses and government. Education throughout school and university, as well as in workplaces, ensures people know what to do when disaster strikes, Isakov says.

Local government plays a vital role here, particularly in protecting those most vulnerable to severe weather, Isakov says. One group the IDMC report says requires special consideration are city inhabitants in developing countries, whose numbers have risen more than fourfold since 1970, with much growth unplanned and poorly governed.

In Cuba, urban residents are treated as important actors in disaster preparedness, and the national community-based disaster management strategy involves them in mitigation planning. They take part in activities such as community risk mapping, simulation exercises and annual updates of the countrywide emergency plan. [2] Other nations can learn from this, Isakov says. For developing countries lacking the strong organisation and structure of Cuba’s communist government, communication platforms like radio can help local people build knowledge and planning systems. Other countries could also tap into regional projects, such as that run by Cuba’s Latin American Center for Disaster Medicine to strengthen training programmes for emergency healthcare to disseminate information in Cuba and other vulnerable developing states, Isakov adds. [2]

“The Cubans have a long history of sharing their knowledge and expertise in disaster preparedness and response with their Caribbean neighbours, and globally,” Isakov says. And the recent thawing in US-Cuban relations should mean greater opportunity for mutually beneficial dialogue and idea exchange, he says.


[1] Global estimates 2015: People displaced by disasters (IDMC, 20 July 2015) 
[2] Weathering the storm: Lessons in risk reduction from Cuba (Oxfam America, 2004)