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Ten good reasons to report on disaster risk reduction

In the course of the last three decades, journalists working across all forms of media have helped make dramatic changes in social attitudes to drinking, smoking, diet, HIV and AIDS and the environment. If disaster risk reduction becomes a normal part of the national, civic and media agenda, it will be because of systematic, measured and sensible reporting by responsibly minded people in the media.

Below is a list of ten good reasons to report on disaster risk reduction. Reference to recent disasters, including the COVID-19 pandemic, easily bears out these points.

1. DRR is a political issue

As disasters continue to rise and people demand more action from their governments to take preventive action, DRR is likely to become a significant political issue in the years to come. The effects of climate change such as droughts are known to lead to civil unrest and armed insurgencies, such as in southern Syria in the last few years. The increasing damage from disasters will also make the case for stronger governance and closer regional and international collaboration.

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Recognized as one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, the Philippines needs to elect leaders and policymakers who can face up to the adversities brought about by climate change and disasters, various climate advocates said on Tuesday.

2. Natural hazards are on the rise and will continue to make news

Natural hazards are likely to remain among the most challenging issues in the future as climate change, poverty, urban risks and environmental degradation expose more people to an entirely new scale of devastation.

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Recognized as one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, the Philippines needs to elect leaders and policymakers who can face up to the adversities brought about by climate change and disasters, various climate advocates said on Tuesday.

3. DRR is an economic issue

Disasters are costing more and have long-term economic impacts on both developed and developing countries alike. Disasters cause damage worth $130 billion every year on average. But in addition to the economic losses, disasters often devastate the livelihoods of the survivors, often for years to come. Stories from this perspective can build strong narratives that feed into DRR priorities at different levels.

4. DRR is a human rights issue

Recent humanitarian crises caused by disaster situations have raised new challenges, in particular in relation to the basic human rights of affected populations. As stated elsewhere in this handbook, the weakest and the poorest suffer the most and stand to lose the most. Disasters can also lead to the scapegoating and demonisation of groups, sometimes fuelled by political agendas.

5. DRR is an environmental issue

Disasters are most often linked to extreme weather events intensified by global warming and climate change. And of course, disasters often ravage already degraded ecosystems and habitats, and can lead to cascading effects on multiple sectors of an economy. Environmental stories related to cause and effect, or the preventive steps that could be taken, can be found around most disasters.

6. DRR is a cultural issue

People have different perceptions of disasters and react in different ways. Some people ignore hazards and believe disasters are inevitable as acts of God or nature. But many societies realize that hazards can be identified and disasters prevented. Using traditional knowledge, people in many regions have adapted building design to withstand earthquakes, or to survive flooding. When the Indian Ocean tsunami hit in December 2004, some 230,000 people were killed throughout Asia, but only seven died out of a population of approximately 83,000 on Simeulue Island, just 40 km from the epicentre of the earthquake. Nearly the entire population on the island survived thanks to knowledge of previous tsunamis, handed down from one generation to the next.

7. DRR is a gender issue

In poorer countries, women and children tend to be the most affected by disasters. Women are more vulnerable because of their subordinate position in the family, lack of control over the means of production, restricted mobility, limited facilities for education, lack of employment, and inequalities in food intake relative to men. As a result of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 in Myanmar, twice as many women died as men in the 18-60 age groups. Highlighting examples of women leaders in their communities across Asia and Africa can make very attractive stories, contributing to women’s empowerment.

Studies show that women, boys and girls are 14 times more likely than men to die during a disaster (Peterson, 2007).

In 1991, during the cyclone disasters in Bangladesh, of the 140,000 people who died, 90% were women (Ikeda, 1995).

During the emergency caused by Hurricane Katrina in the United States, most of the victims trapped in New Orleans were Afro-American women with their children, the poorest demographic group in that part of the country (Gault et al., 2005; Williams et al., 2006).

Following a disaster, it is more likely that women will be victims of domestic and sexual violence; they even avoid using shelters for fear of being sexually assaulted (Davis et al., 2005).

Disaster and gender statistics

Neumayer and Plmper analyzed disasters in 141 countries and found that, when it came to deaths, gender differences were directly linked to women’s economic and social rights; in societies where women and men enjoyed equal rights, disasters caused the same number of deaths in both sexes.

They also confirmed that discrepancies were the result of existing inequalities. For example, boys were given preferential treatment during rescue efforts and, following disasters, both women and girls suffered more from shortages of food and economic resources (Neumayer and Plmper, 2007).

“Natural and humanitarian disasters lead to a dramatic increase in child marriages as families struggle to cope,” a campaign group said in 2015, urging governments to accelerate their efforts to end the practice. “Rates of child marriage have risen sharply and in some cases doubled in three years in Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, while in Bangladesh some families are marrying off their daughters in anticipation of recurring natural disasters, “ the campaign group Girls not Brides said.

"Emergency situations are often the last straw for many families who are already living on the brink," Lakshmi Sundaram, executive director of Girls Not Brides, said in a statement in Oct 2015.

8. DRR is not only a disaster story

DRR stories do not just have to be about the disasters themselves. Covering current risks and dangers, commemorating past disasters, reporting on disaster recovery and reconstruction efforts as well as on positive measures that can save lives, such as education and traditional knowledge, can be good stories too. The story of Tilly Smith, a young English girl on vacation in Phuket, Thailand, during the 2004 tsunami is one of them. Tilly saved hundreds of people in her hotel, thanks to a geography lesson she had in school on tsunamis before going on vacation.

9. DRR is a health issue

The resilience of health systems is essential to secure immediate and long-term health care and to strengthen communities’ resilience against natural and also biological hazards. It does not cost much more to include DRR principles in the design of new build health facilities and hospitals to ensure they function when they are urgently needed. In fact, it costs only 4 per cent more to make a hospital disaster resilient and safe, according to WHO.

10. DRR is often an investigative story

Journalists do more than just break the news. There are many ways of getting disaster risk reduction into the public consciousness in order to inform, educate and raise awareness and concern about a particular threat. They can question the performance of government and local government, and alert and help a vulnerable audience on the nature of the risk and how to cope with a potential disaster. They can draw attention to vulnerability and exposure, and warn of disasters in the making based on risk assessments. Such reports raise the controversial elements of bad governance, corruption, budgetary folly, and, of course, potential danger.

In its role as a public service provider, the media has a responsibility to raise the profile of disaster risk reduction issues among the public at large. Media played an essential role in raising awareness about the dangers of AIDS and road safety and diminishing the number killed every year by these two threats. No one would stop using seat belts or condoms because they have never had an accident or never contracted HIV. In the same way, no one should fail to take care of their homes, workplaces or children’s schools because they have not suffered floods or earthquakes. Media can help make everybody a risk reducer and make the world safer against disasters. Media have a major role to play in the early warning chain as they are often the first ones to disseminate early warning messages issued by the national disaster management agency.