Every day, rapid growth and urbanization increase the exposure of people and assets to earthquakes, floods, storms and other natural hazards. Unplanned urban expansion, coupled with poor resource management, destroys the natural ecosystems that have protected communities for generations. Indeed, losses from disasters have been on an upward trend since reliable records started in the 1970s; 2011 was the costliest year on record, with estimated losses of around US$380 billion (£248 billion).
While disasters affect everyone, it is the poor and vulnerable - women, children, the elderly, and those recovering from conflict - who are most exposed. When hazards strike, their homes in fragile and often low-lying environments take the brunt of the impact. They are also the first to be affected when droughts send food prices soaring. It is clear that disasters can exacerbate existing social and economic inequity, which can in turn further marginalize people and stoke civil unrest and conflict.
Climate change adds another dimension to the problem. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, once-in-a-generation extreme temperatures are expected to occur annually by the end of this century, and there is a growing body of evidence pointing to increased intensity of storms, longer periods of droughts, and rising sea levels, all of which can make matters worse.
No country can fully insulate itself from adverse natural events, but much can be done to reduce the impact. A meeting convened this week at the Met Office in Exeter by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) and co-chaired by the United Kingdom's Department for International Development (DfID) will mobilize donors and international organizations to take more proactive steps to reduce the vulnerability of exposed populations in developing countries.
The need is great. Between 1980 and 2009 about 2% of total global development assistance was allocated to disaster-related activities. Of this, the smallest share - only 3.6% - went to disaster prevention and preparedness. The time to change this is now.
A unique international partnership program hosted by the World Bank, GFDRR brings together governments from around the world, the United Nations, the World Bank and other international donors to develop and implement strategies to increase the resilience of disaster-prone communities and nations. This week's high-level meeting is a clarion call for political will and concrete commitment to investing in disaster risk management. Rather than focusing exclusively on responding to disasters, preventive measures can save lives, property, and often avoid the expense of post-disaster humanitarian action.
Success depends heavily on how well disaster risk is understood. City planners, for instance, play important roles through risk-based territorial planning, enforcement of building standards, early warning systems, and emergency response plans. Governments and donors can help cities build this capacity and the knowledge for managing risks. At the heart of the success of these projects is the long-term support of specialized actors on the ground, as well as government institutions operating at the national and local levels.
In Nepal, GFDRR is partnering with Open Street Map, an open source mapping community, to create detailed risk maps of the Kathmandu valley that will be used to identify sources of risk and guide investments in risk mitigation. Groups of volunteers have managed to generate house-by-house information for all of Kathmandu in just a few months. Donors, in collaboration with the Government of Nepal, are now using this information to prepare an infrastructure retrofitting program and contingency plans.
In Haiti, where architecture students had been taught very little about natural hazards, risk and reconstruction before the 2010 earthquake, GFDRR funds a program through the Ministry of Public Works, Transport, and Communication to train future practitioners. This project links students and professors with a forum to acquire practical field knowledge on disaster risk mitigation, and facilitates interactions with government and reconstruction experts.
In India, GFDRR provides support to reform the National Agricultural Insurance Scheme, the largest crop insurance program in the world with more than 25 million farmers insured. Considered 'best practice' by the World Bank, this project reduces delays in claims payments to farmers affected by disasters and improves coverage. It is now informing agricultural insurance improvement projects around the world.
Early warning systems are critical to disaster preparedness and mitigation. GFDRR has launched partnerships with the World Meteorological Organization and multiple meteorological agencies to support close to 20 countries where national weather forecasting services are weak or non-existent.
GFDRR and donor partners, in close collaboration with the United Nations, are also working to develop and implement a comprehensive school safety program to protect children, teachers and local communities in fragile areas around the world.
Ultimately, the impact of our efforts and this week's meeting will be measured by the calamity that hasn't occurred -- the bridge that still stands, the homes that remain intact, and the families whose lives and livelihoods are not subjected to unnecessary risk. If we are successful, up to 34 countries - representing a total population of over one billion people - will be better able to cope with and adapt to the effects of natural disasters.
Francis Ghesquiere is Head of the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) Secretariat (www.gfdrr.org)