GENEVA – Governments and businesses are still investing far too little to protect poor communities at rising risk from wild weather and other threats, the heads of the U.N. disaster prevention agency and the Red Cross said Tuesday.
Countries are having to dig deep to bail out crisis-hit communities — as happened after Cyclone Idai killed hundreds and razed central areas of Mozambique’s coast in mid-March, leaving large swaths of land flooded and property destroyed.
But lives could be saved and aid bills slashed by spending more upfront to avert the worst damage, as happened when India faced Cyclone Fani this month, the senior officials said ahead of an international conference on tackling disasters in Geneva this week.
“Cyclone Idai was a reminder that the way we respond to disasters is out of balance,” said Elhadj As Sy, secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
“Lack of investment to reduce and prevent disaster impacts results in more and more money needed to save lives and repair damages after the fact,” Sy added in a statement.
Ahead of the Mozambique disaster, which left an estimated 1.85 million people in need of aid, the Red Cross released 340,000 Swiss francs ($337,000) in international funding to help evacuate and prepare communities in harm’s way.
But the cost of Red Cross and U.N. relief operations after the disaster added up to nearly 1,000 times more, or about 315 million Swiss francs, the humanitarian network said.
“Such a model doesn’t work for people who are at risk of storms and flooding. It’s also a model that doesn’t make financial sense, especially as we anticipate increased weather-related disasters as a result of climate change,” said Sy.
Measures aid agencies use to safeguard people include putting in place systems to warn them of danger — whether via mobile phone messages or megaphones — as well as designating robust public buildings as shelters and positioning key supplies beforehand.
Mami Mizutori, special representative of the U.N. secretary-general for disaster risk reduction, said that despite a target in the Sendai Framework, a 2015 global pact, to “substantially enhance” international aid to prevent disasters, “this is not happening.”
Unlike climate change funding for developing nations, there is no numerical target or agreed percentage of aid for governments to spend on reducing disaster risk, she said.
Setting such a target could prove “tricky,” she noted, as it could spark contention in a policy area around which governments are currently “very united.”
In the past, a few countries said they would earmark a share of their humanitarian aid for disaster prevention — about 10 percent in the case of the U.K. and the Netherlands — but it has not become a formal global goal.
“There is a lack of money in every aspect of dealing with disaster,” said Mizutori in an interview ahead of Wednesday’s opening of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, due to attract more than 4,000 participants.
Not enough money is being invested to help hospitals, homes and telecommunications systems withstand growing risks linked to climate change and other threats, Mizutori said.
Small island states, meanwhile, have been saddled with crippling levels of debt as they build back after powerful hurricanes because their higher income levels exclude them from accessing cheap loans, she added.
The former Japanese diplomat said setting an “unrealistic” international target for DRR spending would not help but said calls for more funding needed to continue.
Both officials cited the success of India’s authorities in moving more than 1 million people to safety earlier this month when the coastal state of Odisha was hit by Cyclone Fani.
But the IFRC’s Sy said this was “still the exception to the rule.”
The Red Cross said there had been a shift in recent years toward investment focused more on addressing risk.
But not enough of the money was reaching vulnerable communities in places most threatened by storms, floods and other weather-related disasters, it said.
It called for more funding to protect those people from natural hazards, and help them adjust to shifts in the climate.
“This means investing more in early warning systems that reach the last mile,” said Sy. “It also means investing more in local aid groups that are best placed to help people prepare.”