Vulnerabilities and resilience

Disasters happen for many reasons, but several factors contribute to the increase of disaster risks. These aggravating factors include:

Lack of governance

Natural hazards on their own do not result in disaster. Governance influences the way in which national and sub-national actors (including governments, parliamentarians, public servants, the media, the private sector, and civil society organizations) are willing and able to coordinate their actions to manage and reduce disaster-related risk. Principles of good governance include broad participation, transparency, accountability, efficiency and responsiveness. All are as important for disaster risk reduction as they are for development at large. Good governance is essential for effective disaster risk reduction and sustainable development.

The Sendai Framework for DRR lists strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk as one of the four priorities for action. A clear first step to promoting stronger governance for disaster risk reduction is improving relevant laws and regulations as well as strengthening their implementation.

The facts

Recent examples have shown that when disaster risk reduction is a priority on the political agenda, populations and assets are better protected and more lives are saved.

  • Countries which suffer from weak or poor governance are more likely to expose their populations and communities to disasters due to lack of coordination and enforcement. In Nepal during the last earthquake in 2015, the fact that building codes were not enforced aggravated mortality. The lack of strong institutions and governance bodies in Haiti has been a major problem in the reconstruction process after the 2010 earthquake.
  • Poor governance does not motivate people to be accountable and responsible. If people are not well informed and educated about what they should do when, for example, early warning messages are issued, they do not evacuate on time and are more exposed to disaster impacts.
  • Poor governance also facilitates corruption and makes disaster risk reduction policies less effective; this is in particular true in urban planning policies. The lack of enforced laws especially in the construction sector can put more populations at risk of disasters. Earthquakes don’t kill people, it’s poor quality construction that usually does.
  • Good governance means also to involve different vulnerable groups in disaster risk management, when women, older persons and persons living with disabilities, participate in disaster risk management policies they are less vulnerable to disasters.
  • Lessons learned after events such as the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake show that governance and disaster risk governance are key to saving lives. Greater stakeholder involvement, capacity building, decentralisation and devolution or the transfer of power and authority to local levels are important elements to better protect people and critical infrastructure.

Examples of good disaster governance

Indonesia: President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was the first Head of State to convert the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities in Disasters into a national plan following which Indonesia adopted a new Disaster Risk Reduction law in 2007. President Yudhoyono also increased the amount of money allocated to disaster risk reduction in his national budget and helped build more resilience. In his keynote address at the 5th Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in 2012, President Yudhoyono explained why his administration has made disaster reduction a top national priority: "Disasters in all its forms — tsunamis, earthquakes, forest fires, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions — are the greatest threats to our national security and public well-being,” he said.

Mexico: Prior to the arrival of Hurricane Patricia on October 2015, the Government of Mexico led by President Enrique Peña Nieto issued multiple warnings to coastal communities. A hurricane watch was first raised at 09:00 UTC on 21 October, 2015 encompassing areas of Michoacan, Colima, and Jalisco. A tropical storm watch also covered portions of Guerrero. As Patricia intensified, the government issued a hurricane warning for areas between Cabo Corrientes, Jalisco, and Punta San Telmo, Michoacan; a tropical storm warning supplemented this for areas further north and east. The hurricane warning was extended northward to include areas south of San Blas, Nayarit, on 23 October. Once the storm moved inland and the threat of damaging winds diminished, these warnings were gradually discontinued on 24 October. Thanks to this huge mobilization and coordination, people were prepared to act and lives were saved.

China: China, which annually faces almost every disaster possible - including earthquakes, floods, cyclones and landslides has learned from the experience of many years of heavy human and economic losses and announced in April 2013 that the country will now aim to keep disaster losses at no more than 1.5 percent loss of GDP. On average, disasters had cost 2.38 percent of China's GDP in the previous 20 years said an expert from the National Disaster Reduction Commission (NDRC) in China.

Lack of governance: What can be done?

Put in place national and local strategies for disaster risk reduction aligned with the priorities for action in the Sendai Framework

Make disaster risk reduction a priority in national development plans and sectoral legislation.

Have a national budget on DRR.

Have DRR laws to implement DRR policies.

Enforce and implement disaster risk reduction laws.

Adopt a holistic approach across sectors and levels regarding funding and institutions.

Decentralize DRR responsibilities.

Adopt coherence between climate change adaptation, poverty reduction and disaster risk reduction approaches.

News story

The former mayor of a French seaside town has been sentenced to jail for four years for ignoring flood risks before a storm that killed 29 people in 2010

Rene Marratier hid the risks to La Faute-sur-Mer to avoid putting off property developers, the court said. The storm Xynthia hit western Europe in early 2010. The storm knocked down seawalls in La Faute-sur-Mer, leading to severe flooding. The court said that Marratier knew La Faute-sur-Mer, a west coast resort in the Pays de la Loire region, was at risk of flooding.

To know more:

Figure 8: Economic damage by country. The 10 countries with the greatest total economic damage caused by disasters between 2000 and 2019. Source: EM-DAT.

Climate change

Climate change will create new hazards such as glacier melting, sea level rise and extreme weather events on a scale never seen before. This will aggravate the existing disaster risks and vulnerabilities and expose millions of people never affected before around the world.

The facts

In its Fourth and Fifth Assessment Reports, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that by 2100:

  • Global average surface warming will increase by between 1.1 and 6.4 degrees Centigrade.
  • Sea level will rise by between 18cm and 59cm; sea-level rise, coupled with coastal storms, will increase the risks of flooding and threaten protective ecosystems.
  • Oceans will become more acidic and warmer.
  • Extreme heatwaves and heavy rainfalls will become more frequent.
  • More heatwaves will increase death rates among the elderly, very young, chronically ill and socially isolated.
  • Higher latitudes will experience more precipitation; subtropical land areas will become more arid.
  • Tropical cyclones (including typhoons and hurricanes) will become more intense, with higher peak wind speeds and heavier precipitation, as tropical sea surface temperatures increase.
  • Regions hardest hit will include the Arctic, sub-Saharan Africa, small islands, developing states, Asian deltas and coastal zones.
  • Increased drought in some regions will lead to land degradation, crop damage and reduced yields; livestock deaths and wildfire risks will increase, and people dependent on agriculture will face food and water shortages, malnutrition and increased disease, with many being forced to migrate.
  • Greater rainfall in some areas will trigger more floods and landslides, with consequent disruption to agriculture, urban settlements, commerce and transport.
  • Increases in the number and intensity of powerful cyclones will affect coastal regions and threaten very large additional losses of life and property.
  • As temperatures rise, glaciers melt, increasing the risk of glacial lake outburst floods; as mountain glaciers recede, farmers and towns downstream that depend in the summer months on glacial melt water will increasingly be at risk.

Climate change: What can be done?

Make disaster risk reduction a national and local priority, with strong institutions to implement decisions.

Set up early warning systems that reach all people, in time for appropriate action, and accompany the warnings with helpful advice.

Incorporate climate risk in all urban planning and water and forest management processes.

Maintain and strengthen coastal wave barriers, river levees, flood ways and flood ponds.

Have adequate drainage systems to avoid flooding.

Incorporate climate risks in infrastructure projects, especially in hospitals, schools and water supplies.

Support diversification, including new sources of income, new crops and agricultural techniques, and new ways to improve water uptake and reduce erosion.

Build mechanisms that will get people out of harm’s way and prepare shelters to protect them when they are forced to move.

Rapid and unplanned urbanization

The rapid growth of cities, combined with climate change and the urban population explosion, will create new stresses for urban settlements and make city dwellers increasingly vulnerable.

The facts

  • One out of every two people now lives in a city; this proportion will go on rising; by 2030, 5 billion of the planet’s expected 8.1 billion populations will be urban.
  • One in three of the urban population lives in marginal settlements or crowded slums with inadequate access to clean water, sanitation, schools, transport and other public services.
  • One city dweller in four lives in absolute poverty; by 2030, two-thirds of humankind will live in cities and three billion in slums.
  • Eight of the 10 most populous cities on the planet are vulnerable to earthquakes according to an ADB report in 2008. Similarly, large population centres are often located on the coastline, rendering them vulnerable to floods, storm surges and tsunamis. Ineffective land-use planning, inadequate enforcement of building codes and faulty construction standards put millions at risk. (Source: Shaw et al., Urban Disasters and Resilience in Asia, 2016)
  • Cities with weak governance and small and medium-sized urban areas are more vulnerable to disasters as they have weaker capacities to manage urban growth, deforestation and destruction of coastal systems.

Rapid and unplanned urbanization: What can be done?

Have national and local budgets to systematically integrate disaster risk reduction in all aspect of urban planning.

Plan urbanization and avoid building in risk areas.

Avoid the development of slums, offering safe lands to low-income families.

Have safer schools, hospitals, roads, bridges than can withstand any type of hazard.

Identify high-risk areas, build disaster risk reduction into development programmes and implement effective disaster recovery policies.

Integrate seismic risk assessment in the construction of buildings in areas exposed to earthquakes.

Involve people at risk by educating them on disaster risk reduction and in making their own neighbourhoods safer; this effectively empowers people and increases their capacity to respond to disaster.

Protect communities by installing early warning systems.

Make warnings more effective with regular drills and increase community ability to foresee, prepare for and cope with disasters.

Give poor communities access to financial mechanisms to protect houses and incomes.

Poverty and inequality

Poverty and socio-economic inequalities are aggravating disaster factors. They not only make poor people more vulnerable to disasters, they also trap them in a vicious circle of poverty. Reducing poverty will reduce disaster mortality, vulnerability and exposure and help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

The facts

  • Disasters affect poor countries and poor communities disproportionately. The World Bank reports that: This disproportionate effect on developing countries has many explanations. Lack of development itself contributes to disaster impacts, both because the quality of construction often is low and building codes, and registration processes, and other regulatory mechanisms are lacking, as well as numerous other development priorities displace attention from the risks presented by natural events ( Hazards of Nature, Risks to Development, World Bank 2006).
  • A country’s level of development has a direct impact on the damage natural hazards inflict on populations. Less-developed countries suffer most, as their weak infrastructure and limited capacity for prevention makes them more vulnerable than wealthy, industrialized nations.
  • One half of the world population is vulnerable to disasters because of their social living conditions. Slums and poor urban settlements are the most exposed to disasters. The poor are more likely to occupy dangerous, less desirable locations, such as flood plains, riverbanks, steep slopes and reclaimed land.
  • Poor people tend to live in poorly built and unprotected buildings that are more vulnerable to disasters.
  • Such overexposure is also true for drought and high temperatures in most countries.
  • Disasters have long-term consequences for poorer people as they have less means to recover. When poor people are impacted by disasters, they generally lose a greater proportion of their assets. A recent report from the World Bank reveals that the impact of disasters forces some 26 million people into poverty each year (Source: World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) in November 2016).
  • Poor people receive less post-disaster support than do other sections of society. For example, after the floods and landslides in Nepal in 2011, only 6 percent of the very poor sought government support, compared with almost 90 percent of the well-off (Gentle et al. 2014).
  • Disasters have long-lasting effects on education and health among the less well- off because they may have to make detrimental choices such as withdrawing a child from school or cutting health care expenses. In Peru, the impact of the 1970 Ancash earthquake on educational attainment could be detected even for those born to mothers who were children in 1970, demonstrating that the effects of large disasters can extend even to the next generation (Caruso and Miller 2015).

Poverty and inequality: What can be done?

Establish urban development programmes that reduce the creation of slums in risk areas and prevent the growth of housing on dangerous slopes or flood plains.

Provide the poor with access to lands that are safe.

Involve the poorest communities in building their own capacity to resist disaster since they have most to lose, and to give them a greater political stake in the community.

Give the poorest people full access to early warning systems, preparedness measures and at the same time access to financial mechanisms that can help them protect their homes, health and livelihoods.

Develop micro-finance mechanisms that include micro-credits, micro- savings and micro-insurance -- instruments that help reduce poverty by also reducing vulnerability to natural hazards.

Unbreakable. Building the Resilience of the Poor in the Face of Natural Disasters, by the World Bank Group provides an overview of critical concepts.

Environmental degradation

Communities can all too often increase the probability and severity of disasters by destroying the forests, coral reefs and wetlands that might have protected them.

The facts

  • Forests once covered 46 per cent of the Earth’s land surface and half of these have disappeared; only one-fifth of the Earth’s forests remain undisturbed.
  • Coral reefs are home to one-fourth of all marine species; 60 per cent of coral reefs could be lost in the next 20-40 years.
  • The expansion of deserts and the degradation of land threaten nearly one-quarter of the planet’s land surface; more than 250 million people are directly affected by desertification and 1 billion are at risk.
  • Global warming will only intensify species loss and ecosystem damage, which will further increase vulnerability to disasters.

Environmental degradation: What can be done?

Undertake land-use planning with an ecosystem approach.

Recognize the risk reduction function of ecosystems in environmental policies and legislation.

Identify and protect natural buffers such as forests, wetlands and coral reefs.

Restore forests and plant mangroves to shield communities from hazards such as storm surge, coastal flooding and tropical storms.

Manage forests to reduce wildfire risk.