Ethiopia: Reducing ruin from disasters: the next big thing
by BRIJ KHINDARIA,
A small piece of good news has emerged from Ethiopia, one of the world’s poorest countries per capita and probably the oldest location of human existence known to scientists.
It came at a meeting today in Arusha, Kenya, organized by a United Nations agency specialized in reducing risks from disasters (UNISDR). Ethiopia is becoming a leader in compiling data to handle disasters and devise measures for longer-term disaster reduction.
This is a major step forward in a country with an authoritarian government, which suppresses press freedoms and creates an economic worth of only $103 billion annually for its more than 91 million people. It is obtaining leadership by doing something very basic and humane in the Horn of Africa, a region prone to natural disasters and catastrophic wars of attrition. It is building a risk profile database of its people by 2015 to reduce suffering from those disasters.
Warren Buffet recently told a TV interviewer, “You do not want anybody going to bed hungry or– or having medical care denied to them, or just the basics of life…” in the US, a country with $50,000 GDP per person. (See Joe Windish today in the TMV.)
In contrast, Ethiopia’s per capita GDP is barely $1000 and it is in one of the world’s worst neighborhoods. Most of its poor people go hungry and do not get medical care. It is the largest landlocked country and prone to disasters and famines, despite being the Nile River’s major source. It suffered decades of civil war and is surrounded by war prone or war torn neighbors, including Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan.
However, it has understood the importance of risk profiling disaster-affected communities because that helps to escape the vicious cycle of lurching from crisis to crisis. Sporadic disaster interventions reduce the affected community’s resilience and create dependency on relief measures. The risk profiling allows local authorities and communities to move towards measures that build longer-term structures to manage risks and target support to the right people at the right time.
The latest UNISDR figures report 4,130 disasters between 2002 and 2011, which killed about 1.2 million people and caused economic losses worth $1.2 trillion. The economic impacts are shattering as they spread from the disaster zone to many other countries because of globalization.
For example, the 2011 floods in Thailand cost at least $40 billion to that country and caused a 2.5 percent drop in global industrial production. The Japanese tsunami and earthquake in 2011 cut the nation’s growth by at least one percent and shaved off growth by as much as .02 percent in China, Malaysia, India, Singapore and the Philippines. Those countries lost up to 0.5 percent of their exports because Japan could not supply necessary inputs.
The situation is likely to become worse because more than half the world’s cities with populations of 2 million to 15 million are in earthquake zones. People living in cyclone-prone regions have nearly doubled over the last 30 years and those in flood zones have risen by nearly 115 percent.
Ethiopia is not the only African country collecting local data and building structures to combat the risks and destruction caused by disasters. Forty African countries are attending the meeting in Arusha organized by UNISDR and other international agencies.
They deserve attention from President Barack Obama, even as he struggles to provide economic security for all Americans. Buffet’s wise adage for the US cannot be applied to the world because the problems of poverty, risk and chaos are too many. But any drop in the ocean of misery caused by disasters is useful.
Disaster risk reduction could even be the next big thing by speeding up recovery from the disaster and helping to avoid economic slowdowns in other countries. Superstorm Sandy and other catastrophes in the US are still fresh memories, especially the travails of resuming life after them.