Downtown Port Vila, Vanuatu

Downtown Port Vila. Credit CC-BY/Graham Crumb

‘Effective resilience planning should involve early, pre-emptive investment in measures to reduce future damages.’

Aside from the moral argument that disasters should be prevented whenever possible, numerous estimates exist of the cost-saving generated by preventative disaster risk reduction expenditure (for example $1 saved for every $4 invested). Despite this evidence, committing money to measures to prevent a disaster when there is no immediate threat and when there are so many other pressing needs is challenging for any government. It is much easier to find the funds and get the support to spend them in the aftermath of a disaster – during last winter’s floods in the UK David Cameron famously stated “money is no object” to deal with the crisis.

Preventative expenditure is even more challenging, but arguably more important in developing countries where funds are lacking but an extreme weather event can set back development gains overnight. As Vanuatu’s President Lonsdale said in the aftermath of last week’s huge Cyclone Pam:

“After all the development we have done for the last couple of years and this big cyclone came and just destroyed all the infrastructure the government has built. Completely destroyed.”

The devastation wrought should see funds pouring into Vanuatu. While the immediate priority must be to help people with the basics required – food, clean water, medical aid, shelter – funds must also be made available for longer term planning and re-building the infrastructure President Lonsdale referred to. The aftermath of a disaster can be a window of opportunity to re-think urban design, improve infrastructure standards and location etc. when there is the political will and hopefully funding to make major changes. The re-building process should be one of using expertise to ‘build back better’ as in the case of the Philippines’ ‘Safe Schools Initiative’ where school building standards were upgraded following Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

All this is recognised in the new Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015 – 2030, in which two of the four priorities for action are ‘Investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience’ and ‘Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response, and to ‘Build Back Better’ …’ (further blog to come on the Sendai conference).

In the case of the UK, it looks like we might not be learning as much as we can from the experience of last winter’s extreme weather (which was largely a success story in comparison to that of 1953) – last week’s Environmental Audit Committee report on climate change adaptation in the UK demonstrated that small-scale development is still occurring on flood plains and that the Government is not using its powers as much as it could to reduce the impact of extreme weather (for example, to require universal water-metering in water-stressed areas, and to require Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS) in new developments – an approach that combines engineering and natural processes to reduce flooding). The Committee concludes that in the UK there needs to be more leadership from the top, with more spatial plans, measures and targets – all things highlighted in our report.

‘National governments play a crucial role in laying the foundations for resilience and empowering others to take action. They have the primary responsibility to protect their people and property (including the most vulnerable) by providing information, public policy and goods, legal frameworks, and financial support.’

For more on this, see chapter four of our ‘Resilience to extreme weather’ report. And please do share your thoughts on how to encourage pre-emptive investment and action.

Read other posts in the ‘Resilience in brief’ blog series.