THE BLOG

What We Can Learn About Floods From Developing Countries

24/02/2014 15:52 GMT | Updated 26/04/2014 10:59 BST

Type the phrase "good in a crisis" into Google and you get 1.8 million hits. Search for "good at preventing crises" and you get just sixteen.

It's a sad fact that - whether as individuals or as nations - we spend infinitely more time, energy and money dealing with problems than we do preventing them.

It's even sadder that, for our political leaders, there are plaudits and votes to be won in taking control of a crisis and announcing action plans and emergency budgets to resolve it, but almost none in the hard graft of anticipating risks and investing resources to head them off.

We shouldn't be surprised by the terrible floods that the UK has been facing over the last few weeks. We've experienced similar crises before, in 1953 and 2007, and climate change projections suggest that the frequency and severity of these floods will increase in the years to come.

But as a country, we don't seem to take long-term measures to reduce our risk. Many local authorities are doing a brilliant job responding to the current floods, but - whichever governments have been in office locally or nationally - they have simply not spent enough on adequate flood preparations.

After the 2007 floods, during which half a million people were left without water or electricity, the government promised an additional £60 million to implement recommendations from the independent Pitt review. That sounds like a lot, until you realise it's less than two per cent of the £3.2 billion that the floods cost the country that year.

This kind of short-termism isn't just confined to Britain. All over the world, governments and institutions tend to focus on cure rather than prevention.

Between 1992 and 2012, a staggering 4.4 billion people were affected by natural disasters - the equivalent of nearly two-thirds of the world's population. Huge amounts of money were spent responding to those crises and helping countries recover, and yet less than one per cent of all overseas aid is spent on reducing the risk of such disasters.

Those skewed priorities look positively absurd when you consider how efficient investment in 'disaster risk reduction' can be: the United Nations Development Programme estimates that, around the world, every dollar spent on disaster risk reduction saves around seven dollars in economic losses.

And not just efficient but effective.

On the tiny Philippines island of Tulang Diyot, it was not a miracle that every one of its 1,000 residents survived Typhoon Haiyan last year; it was the result of lots of hard work and planning to execute a flawless emergency evacuation just before every house on the island was obliterated.

In Bangladesh, CAFOD has worked with poor communities that are regularly hit by floods and cyclones to help them manage the risks.

Today, individual families raise their houses on plinths, so they're less likely to be damaged by floods; they also raise their vegetable gardens, so their crops aren't washed away. People know what to do when a disaster strikes: they know where to go, what possessions they can and can't take, and where to store their most important documents.

A community leader named Sabita told me: "We can't stop natural disasters, but we can try to keep the damage low. I show the other women how they can prepare by wrapping precious possessions in plastic paper and storing them high up; collecting a first aid kit, dry foods, a torch, fresh drinking water, oral rehydration salts and a portable stove for cooking; and keeping ducks and chickens in a high and safe place."

These communities hold regular meetings in which they plan evacuation strategies, ensuring that the most vulnerable - like people living with disabilities and older people - are fully included. They also lobby local governments for the practical support they know will make a difference.

Forget the false choice about whether we should take aid money away from The Philippines or Bangladesh to give to flooded communities in this country; it's far more important that we take lessons from those countries about how to help our own communities long-term.

At the moment, only a fraction of money for flood risk reduction in the UK goes to local governments in order to work with communities in building their own resilience. We should encourage locally-managed disaster risk reduction, and introduce more community flood forums, which would help people living on flood plains adapt, and work with local authorities to plan ahead.

We should ensure that all new housing developments on flood plains are flood-resistant, taking lessons from overseas where houses are constructed over garages and sustainable urban drainage is commonplace.

Simple measures that many households could implement to reduce the impact of floods in the UK include: not having carpets on ground floors, raising electrical sockets, installing floodgates, buying furniture that can easily be moved upstairs, having a plan for what your family will do when a flood strikes, and having emergency contact details so you know who to call when disaster does strike. These kinds of measures don't just reduce risk; they can also reduce insurance premiums.

When aid agencies like CAFOD respond to emergencies in poor countries, we always try to help communities build back better and reduce their vulnerability to future disasters. As the UK recovers from these devastating floods, we must do the same.

But that will require a change in mindset: a commitment from all political parties to start investing as much time and energy in risk reduction, as they are currently having to do in crisis response.

They can start by taking seriously the global Hyogo Framework, agreed in 2005, which provides a ten-year blueprint for every country to identify and manage the biggest natural risks they face.

When the UN hosted the 2013 'Global Platform for Risk Reduction' on how to update and replace the framework, which Minister did the UK Government send? They didn't. A handful of civil servants represented the UK.

Let's hope someone in government is listening to them now.