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An era of disasters

In 1989, the United Nations General Assembly designated October 13 as the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction (IDDRR) to drive a globally collaborative effort for disaster risk reduction. Since then, the day has provided an opportunity every year to introspect and acknowledge global progress in preventing and reducing disaster risk and losses while taking stock of the impediments confronting achieving the objective.

This year’s celebration was more significant as it happened shortly after the Midterm Review of the Implementation of the Sendai Framework 2015-2030 (MTR SF). The UN General Assembly in May 2023 adopted a political declaration to accelerate action to strengthen disaster resilience. The theme aligned with the Sendai Framework, the international agreement to prevent and reduce losses in lives, livelihoods, economies, and basic infrastructure. The Sendai Framework also complements the Paris Agreement on climate change, with both frameworks closely intertwined to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

It is also significant because these are the most catastrophic times in the recorded history of humankind when humanity is facing existential threats like the climate-induced epic floods-2022 in Pakistan, the September 2023 cyclone Daniel which was the deadliest Mediterranean tropical-like cyclone in recorded history, the October 2023 glacial lake outburst in Sikkim, the catastrophic droughts in the horns of Africa, the September 2023 deadly earthquake in Morocco and the March 2023 searing wildfires acenvross Canada – the list is unending if we include human-made disasters: African, Syrian, Afghan, Ukraine and now the Israel-Palestine situation.

Simultaneously, the sixth assessment report (AR6) of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change has ranked the South Asian region as the most vulnerable region to climate change and hydro-meteorological disasters. The exacerbating human-induced variables are uncontrolled population, unplanned urbanization, a complex mesh of poverty, and political and economic instability further push already fragile populations in terms of large-scale destruction and disruptions of livelihoods, infrastructure, and the most critical social capital.

While it is completely possible for humanity to contain conflict-caused disasters, it may be impossible to stop and put an end to the [so-called] extreme natural disasters. But nothing is inevitable when it comes to preventing or minimizing loss of life and economic damages they cause. In order to explore implicitly intricate cause and effect relations, one feels compelled to differentiate the terms of climate-induced and human-induced as well as natural disasters.

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) defines a disaster as “a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society at any scale due to hazardous events interacting with conditions of exposure, vulnerability and capacity, leading to one or more of the following: human, material, economic and environmental losses and impacts”. Furthermore, according to the World Bank “unnatural disasters are deaths and damages that result from human acts of omission and commission”.

Both statements clarify that disasters are the result of an intricate interaction between hazardous events and the vulnerability of the social system and the population mainly because of human choices. Therefore, in the expression ‘natural disasters’ the adjective ‘natural’ misrepresents the formal meaning of ‘disaster’. Any small or big calamitous event can turn into a disaster due to decisions we make to deal with it, ex-ante and ex-post – which can transform a threat into a disaster”.

As a matter of fact, most of the disasters the world is experiencing today are not natural. Nonetheless, the expression ‘natural disasters’ is still in vogue by disaster risk management (DRM) experts, scientists, media, and international organizations around the world. The notion taken in traditional ways eventually leads to minimizing the sense of human responsibility, and governance accountability. This also reinforces the common misbelief that ‘natural’ disasters are inevitable. We have plenty of examples where countries like the Netherlands remained successful in preventing, reducing, or even eliminating the impacts of disasters. The Dutch system to prevent and respond to crises and disasters is phenomenal. Bangladesh’s early warning system and achieving a degree of resilience through that community-let system is yet another example to emulate.

Irrespective of the logical or illogical connotations of the terminology, it is an estimated fact that the global average annual loss from disasters will increase from an annual average of $260 billion in 2015 to $414 billion by 2030. These happenings put at risk global economic growth, poverty reduction, peace, and more generally, the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and 2030 agenda.

Developing or under-developing nations reel further in a harrowing quagmire due to plenty of ordeals. Pakistan, due to the 2022 floods, bore over $30 billion worth of losses that came from massive damage to infrastructure, livelihoods, and the economy. Children bore the first impacts when it came to the human impacts of these disasters. According to a recently released Unicef ‘Children Displacement in a Changing Climate’ report, weather-related disasters caused 43.1 million internal displacements of children between 2016 and 2021.

Despite being highly prone to numerous kinds of disasters, Pakistan has made little progress in bringing reforms in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) even though it was one of the first few countries to have ratified the Hyogo and Sendai frameworks for DRR. The SFDRR calls for proactive planning and decision-making to reduce hazard exposure and strengthen resilience by mainstreaming disaster risk mitigation and resilience into development policies.

However, compelled by the recent extreme happenings, we made a little progress by rolling out its National Disaster Mitigation Plan – Pakistan Remodeled NDMP-II 2023 with the vision to “enhance the capacities required for reducing risks and building disaster and climate resilience at all levels”. The framework can play a fundamental role in initiating a strategic and systematic policy response system to build the resilience of the most vulnerable communities.

Building on the current wave of realization on governance issues, mainstreaming of disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change into sectoral policies is a sine-qua-non at this point in time. It is time to shun the conventional governance model by revamping coordination bodies like the Indus Water Commission, Indus River System Authority, Flood Commissions, and Disaster Risk Management Authorities. Preparedness and response organizations or institutions need to be well-connected and well-equipped with recently introduced tools and efficient protocols.

Having done all the homework, there are chances that we can tap global support on preparedness and resilience-building fronts. There is a dire need to prepare and equip communities with massive-level early warning systems and mainstream anticipatory actions designed on forecasts or predictive analyses. When disaster strikes, communities can turn to technology as a lifeline. It is crucial to utilize modern technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) for climate projections and identifying vulnerable groups, regions, and disaster risks through ongoing research and knowledge gathering.

There are scores of funds or grant opportunities to capitalize on making our communities as well as infrastructure resilient. The most recent Green Climate Funded Project ‘Recharge Pakistan: Building Pakistan’s Resilience to Climate Change through Ecosystems-based Adaptation for Integrated Flood Risk Management’ is a fine example of how we can move forward with integrated approaches and leverage internal and external, bilateral and multilateral fund resources. Humanity is living through an era of disasters, and the world needs to design an all-of-world approach to deal with existential disasters.

Raza Hussain Qazi, "An era of disasters," The News. 2023-11-02.
Keywords: Environmental sciences , Climate change , Ecosystems , Floods , Paris , Pakistan , DRR , AI