By VINOD THOMAS
In late January, a catastrophic earthquake devastated Haiti, and as the world struggled to help, barely a month later a far stronger seismic event battered Chile. The unavoidable comparison between these events showed how greater prosperity and preparedness, especially attention to seismic-resistant construction, helped prevent massive casualty and economic paralysis in Chile.
But there was another immediate lesson, common to the two situations: It concerned the urgency to ensure functioning lifelines, notably potable water and first aid, during calamities. Their absence contributed in both to desperation and a breakdown in order.
Crucial as it is to build readiness over time, much can be achieved immediately by making vital installations, such as hospitals and emergency shelters, more disaster-resistant. These systems also need to be assured of uninterrupted power supply, a network of protected access routes, and secure provision of safe water and sanitation. In too many countries, facilities that are essential for an effective response are tied to networks that are almost guaranteed to fail.
In Haiti, Chile and elsewhere before, potable water could not be provided to victims in reasonable time, and emergency medical facilities dropped off-line just when needed most. The ability to take early action in critical care also has a cascading impact on the whole recovery process. Had basic connectivity to emergency medical care and water, for example, continued in Haiti and Chile (or in other previous catastrophes), reconstruction would have been that much easier.
Also, rebuilding homes and neighborhoods requires the safe transportation and storage of building materials. Community groups need to work together in rebuilding homes and infrastructure. Once the use of force and firearms, looting and rioting begin, it is tough to restore the victims’ mutual trust, which is central to the renewal efforts.
Meanwhile, disasters are unmistakably on the rise, especially from floods and tropical storms, and their damages will only increase as population pressures mount. Prevention is more cost-effective than response alone, which is why Chile’s advantage from robust economic development and vigilance is of interest to all. We see hopeful signs elsewhere too.
Bangladesh, subject to annual flooding and to truly massive losses of life, has improved its ability to provide early-warning systems and hurricane shelters, and evacuate areas most at risk. As a result, while the cyclone and floods of November 1970 took the lives of 300,000 people, a similar size storm in May 1997 claimed 188 lives in contrast.
While poor construction is a major reason why so many lives are lost in developing countries when disasters strike, experiences in Colombia and Turkey with earthquake-resistant building codes, enforcement of construction standards and oversight of materials procurement practices are likely to pay off in a major way. And everywhere, better land-use planning is proving to be essential to ensuring that people are not putting up their homes in harm’s way.
Some 50 developing countries face recurrent earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and droughts, yet many of them do not recognize that they will recur. International agencies do not acknowledge these risks as a systematic threat to their assistance. Among the countries who have borrowed from the World Bank for disasters, almost half do not even mention disasters in their development plans.
This must change. If we are ready to invest sizable funds to establish mechanisms to avert financial crises, we need to do the same with the escalating hazards of nature.
In a few months the world’s attention will no longer be fixed on natural disasters. Once the tragedy drops off newspapers’ front pages, international donors, like the countries, find it hard to stay engaged with prevention efforts.
The urgent lesson, especially in light of this sad reality, is that facilities vital to crisis response must be linked to networks that will not fail them. So when the earth shakes or the waters rise, critical networks can stay disaster-resilient — and victims do not need to turn on each other to survive.
Vinod Thomas is the Director-General of the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group.
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