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Photograph by Meena Kadri, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license

The severity of climate-related disasters is often measured by the number of lives lost, the financial losses for the economy or the costs of recovery. But how do disasters affect the poor? A new report from the Overseas Development Institute explores the relationship between disasters and poverty.

The report highlights the potential for natural hazards to spiral into human catastrophes if they entrench poverty that already exists, by pulling vulnerable people down into the poverty trap as their assets and livelihoods vanish.

Particularly at risk are those with limited access to work, land, and social safety nets – the mitigation measures and insurance mechanisms that help people cope and rebuild. It goes on to suggest that disaster risk management should be a key component of any effort to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030.

The marriage of poverty and climate models in this report allows the impacts of climate-related hazards on poverty reduction efforts to be established. At the launch, Met Office Chief Scientist Julia Slingo explained that more work needs to be done to predict the impacts of climate variability. She went on to emphasise that while volatile events such as tropical storms and cyclones remain challenging to predict, we can anticipate more severe storm surges as sea levels continue to rise. This association could be particularly crucial if, as forecast, half of the world’s predicted poor are living in coastal cities by 2030.

The United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, Margareta Wahlstrӧm, stressed the importance of simultaneously tackling poverty, the vulnerability of society and, vitally, the exposure of livelihoods. She said this should be prioritised in the next international framework for disaster risk reduction, due in 2015. It seems, then, that we should not only be protecting lives but also defending livelihoods.

Where there was less of a focus at the launch, however, was on the environmental trade-offs so often associated with a dash to eradicate poverty in economic terms. Healthy ecosystems can provide valuable buffers to the impacts of natural disasters, protecting livelihoods and increasing human resilience to hazard impacts. Could the erosion of the protection proffered by ecosystems jeopardise communities, and furthermore, lead to a loss of environmental capital? The Royal Society’s Resilience project will evaluate ecosystem-based approaches to climate change adaptation.

I was left wondering whether keeping a fisherman alive by warning him not go to sea is worth it if one day he goes to sea and finds there is nothing left to catch.

  • Nick von Behr

    Nice thoughtful post summarised in your final paragraph.