India, world leader in natural disasters

India leads the world in natural disasters. In the last two decades, it has got the most foreign aid for natural disaster relief and rehabilitation. It has obtained 43 such loans from the World Bank alone, well ahead of China (32), Bangladesh (28) and Brazil(27). India is easily No. 1 in aid received ($ 8,257 million).

Though India’s land area is large (3.29 million sq.km.), it is smaller than that of China (9.59 m. sq. km) and Brazil (8.55 m. sq. km.), and not much more than that of Algeria (2.38 m. sq.km), Kazakhstan (2.75 m. sq. km) or Sudan (2.51 m. sq.km). The damage India suffers, and the disaster aid it gets, are disproportionately large.

Rising population has driven poor Indians to settle in risky areas (flood plains, drought-prone areas, cyclone-prone areas, seismic zones). Population pressure is lower elsewhere. Nevertheless, populations are rising the world over in high-risk zones, so natural disasters are causing rising damage and taking more lives.

The World Bank estimates that the material cost of disaster damage rose from barely $ 40 billion in the 1950s to $ 652 billion in the 1990s. The number of major disasters increased from 100 in 1975 to over 400 in 2005.

Nature creates hazards, but human action creates disasters. With preventive action, hazards like hurricanes need not translate into disasters. A recent hurricane caused damage in Grenada, a Caribbean country, equal to 200% of its GDP. But an even stronger hurricane (category 5) hit Bermuda, and caused only modest damage. Why? Because low-income Grenada had makeshift housing that collapsed, whereas high-income Bermuda had hurricane-proof buildings.

Prevention is better than cure. Yet neither citizens nor governments give priority to disaster prevention. When a tsunami or earthquake strikes, citizens and donors respond with swiftness and generosity. But once the tragedy ceases to dominate newspaper headlines, public interest drops steeply. Many countries are hit repeatedly by disasters, donors give repeated aid, but neither pays much attention to prevention.

A recent Bank publication (Hazards of Nature, Risks to Development) estimates that $ 1 of spending on prevention can prevent $ 40 of damage. Why, then, is there so little interest in preventive projects? Because, if prevention succeeds, nothing happens! There are no blazing headlines, no tragic horror stories. Moreover, many countries and communities believe that they will get aid anyway, so why invest in prevention? Many of them view preventive investment as a cost, not a benefit.

What sort of preventive action works best? Experience in India and abroad suggests a few lessons.Develop emer

  • gency plans and early warning systems for vulnerable areas. Make sure early warnings reach and are understood by vulnerable people.
  • Ensure community participation in disaster planning. Without community participation, technical fixes will not work
  • Prepare and disseminate manuals that identify which actors should perform which functions in the event of a disaster.
  • Stock emergency supplies (water purification tablets, plastic sheets, first aid kits) in risk-prone communities.
  • Build public buildings like schools and health centres in locations most likely to survive a disaster (such as high ground in a flood-prone area). In Mozambique, schools were not located on high ground, so floods swept away as many schools as had been built the previous five years.
  • After a disaster, rebuild houses and infrastructure strong enough to withstand future disasters: nature tends to hit the same places repeatedly.
  • Institute building codes tailored to the disaster risk in different areas. Educate people on the advantages of following building codes.
  • Ensure that infrastructure and buildings in risk-prone areas are well maintained.
  • Create emergency shelters (especially in cyclone-prone areas) and ensure that these have the water supply and sanitation to serve big crowds that will arrive during a disaster.

The Latur earthquake in Maharashtra and Kutch earthquake in Gujarat demonstrated that illiterate villagers could build quake-proof houses if given simple instructions. Briefly, they need to use reinforced concrete for the four corners of a house, and also three rings of reinforcement at the top, middle and bottom of the outer walls. However, villagers yet to be hit by quakes are reluctant to retrofit their buildings.

Turkey has instituted compulsory national insurance in quake-prone areas. But this will not work in poor countries. The poorest people in shanty towns face so many risks that they give no priority to natural disaster risk. They will not build according to codes, will not subscribe to insurance, and will not stay away from hazard-prone areas.

The indirect solution here is to have policies that raise incomes. Only the non-poor find it worthwhile to invest in preventive action. So, poverty reduction can translate into disaster reduction.

No. of projects Loan ($ m.)
India 43 8,257
China 32 4,902
Bangladesh 28 2,880
Brazil 27 2,349
Honduras 15 712
Turkey 13 3,390

Source: World Bank

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