UN warns Ebola could infect 10,000 people per week—unless we act now

Disaster resilience is useful now

By Kate Tighe
With the help of Oxfam-funded research, DFYWA learned that six water bottles can keep one person afloat. The rescue team is able to use these alternative life vests to help them save lives.

On this crowded beach, fishermen hawking boat rides are snapping local tourists into red life vests. An NGO donated these vests after the South Asian tsunami of 2004, an effort to protect fishing families from floods, cyclones and storm surges.

But with more hotels lining the coast, more pollution in the water, more trawlers from South Korea, and correspondingly smaller fish catches every year; poverty is a more immediate threat for these families than natural disasters. Fishermen are using the life-vests to stay afloat in an economy on the verge of leaving them behind.

Economic development and vulnerability to disasters are intricately linked. "Disaster risk increases as a result of the process of human development," explained Professor Hemanthi Ranasinge at the opening of the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute's Oxfam-sponsored disaster risk reduction resource center.

This applies to the rising vulnerability of the poorest people in fast-developing India.

Take these fishing families, for example. When the Visakha Patnam Steel factory moved in 20 years ago, it forced the relocation of a number of families away from the coast. They lost access to the sea, their only income.

Arjilly Dasu was just a child when his family was relocated by the steel plant. Dasu has since founded the District Fishermen's Youth Welfare Association (DFYWA), an Oxfam partner organization that works for the rights of fishing families in the area.

DFYWA has been working in this community for the last 5 years; helping people add value to their catch, diversify their livelihoods, save their money, pay off their debts and buy insurance.

The group also advocates for fishing families in legal battles against the coastal development projects that are supplanting them.

In 2005, DFYWA won a stay but eventually lost the battle of a beach road expansion in Visakha Patnam that displaced eight fishing villages. They have recently lost a similar battle with hotel developers in the area.

Despite the losses, Dasu has made sure that relocated families received relief packages that might lessen the toll development is taking on them.

While development puts poor people at risk of disasters, the two are linked in another way. Disasters undo development gains. As Professor Ranasinge said, "disasters put development at risk."

Disasters are expensive. Swiss RE, the Swiss Reinsurance company, estimated total economic losses caused by the tsunami, including damaged property and interrupted tourism, at US$15 trillion.

Disasters impact donor wallets too. In 2005, American individuals, foundations and government donated US$175 billion to people affected by the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, Central American mudslides and the earthquake in Pakistan, said a report by OECD.

When it comes to disasters, the adage about an ounce of prevention applies. With a little more money spent on effective disaster prevention, huge amounts like these could instead be spent on innovation and investment.

Disaster prevention includes disaster-focused interventions, like flotation devices, early warning systems, or evacuation and rescue plans, as well as longer-term interventions like coastal reforestation, or clean drinking water.

But, because of the link between disasters and development, programs that reduce poverty are also disaster prevention programs. These might include helping people earn more, get out of debt, buy insurance, or claim their political rights.

Most donors, however, are moved to open their wallets only after a disaster happens, when they can see the extent of a tragedy for themselves.

"People don't want to invest in prevention," says Russell Miles, Tsunami Research Program Manager for Oxfam America.

The problem with over-investing or only investing in relief is that most post-disaster funding is bound to short time tables. "That is why we end up doing short-term interventions over and over again," Miles said.

DFYWA has found a way to bridge the gap between disasters and development.

With donor organizations that have tsunami money left to spend, DFYWA frames its projects as "disaster risk reduction" projects.

When working with fishing families, worried about tomorrow's catch, paying money lenders, getting their kids medicine and education, said Dasu, they call it "development."

"Yes, it will be useful in the next disaster," said Mahalakshmi Kara, a local grandmother, of a micro-insurance program in her village, "but it's also useful now, in the day-to-day, and for that we are grateful."